The belief in spirit possession is widespread. It is not confined to particular countries, cultures or religions, nor is it confined to new immigrant communities in this country.
The definition which is commonly accepted across faith-based organisations, non-governmental organisations and the public sector is the belief that ‘an evil spirit’ has entered a child and is controlling him or her. The term ‘witch’ is sometimes used and is defined as the belief that a child is able to use an evil force to harm others. There is a range of terms used connected to such abuse for example black magic, kindoki, ndoki, the evil eye, djinns, voodoo and others. In all these cases, genuine beliefs can be held by families, carers, religious leaders, congregations and the children themselves that evil forces are at work. Families and children can be deeply worried by the evil that they feel is threatening them, and abuse often occurs when an attempt is made to ‘exorcise’ or ‘deliver’ the child.
Any concerns about a child which arise in this context must be taken seriously.
Where the concerns relate to a number of children, consideration should be given to whether the Organised and Complex Abuse Procedure should be implemented.
2. The Child
The number of known cases of child abuse linked to accusations of “possession” or “witchcraft” is small, but children involved can suffer serious damage to their physical and mental health, their capacity to learn, their ability to form relationships and to their self-esteem.
The abuse may be carried out by the child’s parents or carers or others in the family network as well as by faith leaders. Sometimes faith leaders or healers are asked or paid by parents to’ exorcise’ the child.
The abuse usually occurs in the household where the child lives but it may also occur in a place of worship where alleged ‘diagnosis’ and ‘exorcism’ may take place.
Such abuse generally occurs when a carer views a child as being “different” and attributes this difference to the child being “possessed” or involved in “witchcraft”. In some cases a spiritual explanation is sought to explain a perceived difference which is seen to violate family norms.
A child could be viewed as “different” for a variety of reasons such as, disobedience; independence; bedwetting; nightmares; illness; or disability. There is often a weak bond of attachment between the carer and the child.
There are various social reasons that make a child more vulnerable to an accusation of “possession”. Where there is family stress and/or a change in the family structure or fortunes, the ‘possession’ is a way of rationalising the family misfortune.
The attempt to “exorcise” may involve severe beating, burning, starvation, rubbing chilli peppers or other substances in the eyes or on the genitals, cutting or stabbing and isolation.
Any siblings or other children in the household may be well cared for with all their needs met by the parents and carers. However, the other children may have been drawn in by the adults to view the child as “different” and may have been encouraged to participate in the adult activities.
In a family where a new baby is expected it may be necessary to undertake a pre-birth assessment as well, as in some cases there is a belief that the ‘spirit possession’ can be passed on by a child to an unborn child.
Concerns reported in the cases known from research usually involve children aged 2 to 14, both boys and girls, and have generally been reported through schools or non-governmental organisations. The referrals usually take place at a point when the situation has escalated and become visible outside the family.
Note: This means that the child may have been subjected to serious harm for a period of time already.
The initial concerns referred have been about:
- Issues of neglect such as not being fed properly or being ‘fasted’, not being clothed, washed properly etc. but left to fend for themselves especially compared to the other children in the household
- Often the carer is not the natural parent and the family structure can be complex
- Children often appear distressed and withdrawn
- The child is seen as the scapegoat for a change in family circumstances for the worse
- In a group of children it may be the child who is relatively powerless vis-a -vis the parents/carers, maybe a child with no essential role in the family
- The child is seen as someone who violates the family norms by being physically different perhaps because of illness, disability or, in some cases, a suspicion by the father of adultery by the mother
All agencies should be alert to the indicators above and should be able to identify children at risk of this type of abuse and intervene to prevent it by using the procedures for Referrals, Single Assessments and, when appropriate, Strategy Discussions/Meetings. See Chapter 1.5, Making Referrals.
Children’s Social Care should undertake a Single Assessment on all referrals which require assessment and, depending on the seriousness of the referral information, a Strategy Discussion which takes into account the dimension of the beliefs expressed by the child and family.
The assessment must involve the particular faith group or person performing or advising the family about the child in order to establish the facts i.e. what is happening to the child.
Careful assessment at all stages is needed with close communications, which include key people in the community especially when working with new immigrant communities and with all the various faith groups, are essential.
In view of the nature of the risks, a full health assessment of the child should take place to establish the overall health of the child, the medical history and current circumstances.
Any suggestions that the parent or carers will take the child out of the country must be taken seriously and legal advice sought promptly regarding possible prevention.
The child must be seen and spoken to on his or her own. The child’s bedroom or sleeping arrangements must be inspected. It is important to ascertain the child’s wishes and feelings and understand the child’s environment. If the use of an interpreter is needed, the interpreter must not be a part of the same family, social or faith network to ensure neutral translation and interpreting services.
Although the research has found a number of parents and carers to have some form of mental health problem, this must not distract from the child’s situation nor be seen as a factor to explain away the potential risks to the child.
In assessing the risks to the child, the siblings or any other children in the household must also be considered as they may have witnessed or been forced to participate in abusive or frightening activities or may be at risk of harm themselves.
In order for the assessments to be effective an understanding of the family’s culture and set of beliefs is fundamental as is the use of the correct terminology in order to build up trust and effective communication.
Where the Section 47 Enquiry and the assessments lead to an Initial Child Protection Conference being convened, careful thought needs to be given to issues of confidentiality and who participates in order to ensure that the child’s safety and wellbeing remains the priority.
If immigration status is a factor identified as affecting the family, the UK Visas and Immigration must be invited to any Strategy Meeting and be aware of any potential abuse of the child.
5. The Local Safeguarding Board
The Local Safeguarding Board has duties to ensure that information is collated in their area about any concerns that are reported in relation to ‘spirit possession’.
Liaison and communications with local faith groups should be developed and monitored.
Where concerns about a place of worship emerges such as:
- A lack of priority is given to the protection of children and there is a reluctance by some leaders to get to grips with implementing sound safeguarding policies and practices;
- Assumptions exist that ‘people in our community’ would not abuse children or that a display of repentance for an act of abuse is seen to mean that an adult no longer poses a risk of harm;
- There is a denial or minimisation of the rights of the child or the demonisation of individuals;
- There is promotion of mistrust of secular authorities;
- There are specific unacceptable practices that amount to abuse.
The Local Safeguarding Board should consider how best to tackle the concerns, whether intervention is needed to safeguard children or whether concerns can be addressed through influence and engagement with its member agencies and services.
Further contacts for advice can be found from the local representatives for some faiths, from organisations such as the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) who provide information about exorcism; the Churches Together in England Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (AFRUCA) and the Muslim Parliament.