Skip to main content
Pan Lancashire SCB Logo

Top of page

Size: View this website with small text View this website with medium text View this website with large text View this website with high visibility

Caption: main heading

5.37 Religious Beliefs and Linked Abuse


Caption: contents table
  Key Considerations
  Definitions and Incidence
  Forms of Abuse
  Why are Children Abused or Neglected in this Way?
  Action to Safeguard
  Services to Support Children
  Concerns about a Place of Worship

Key Considerations

  1. The following points can assist in understanding the issues and actions to safeguard children from, abuse or neglect linked to a belief in spirit possession are:
    • Child abuse is never acceptable in any community, in any culture, in any religion, under any circumstances. This includes abuse that might arise through a belief in spirit possession or other spiritual or religious beliefs;
    • Everyone working with or in contact with children has a responsibility to recognise and know how to act on evidence, concerns, and signs that a child's health, development and safety is or may be being impaired, especially when they suffer or are at risk of Significant Harm;
    • Standard child safeguarding procedures apply and must always be followed in all cases where abuse or neglect is suspected including those that may be related to a belief in spirit possession. Children suffering or at risk of suffering from such abuse or neglect will be identified and appropriately safeguarded if statutory procedures are implemented correctly. Anyone with concerns that a child may have suffered, or is likely to suffer Significant Harm should follow the procedures in Part 3 of this manual for Managing Individual Cases where there are concerns about a child's safety and welfare;
    • Child abuse linked to a belief in spirit possession sometimes stems from a child being used as a scapegoat. Whilst specific beliefs, practices, terms or forms of abuse may exist, the underlying reasons for the abuse are often similar to other contexts in which children become at risk of poor outcomes due to factors such as family stress, deprivation, domestic violence, substance abuse and or mental health problems. In addition, children who are different in some way, perhaps because they have a disability, an illness, learning needs, or are exceptionally bright, might be targeted in this kind of abuse. In some cases, there will be no obvious difference and the child will have been targeted because they will have been perceived to be 'spiritually' different;
    • The number of identified cases of such abuse is small but where it does occur the impact on the child is great, causing much distress and the child will be suffering Significant Harm. It is possible that a significantly larger number of cases remain undetected;
    • Professionals with safeguarding responsibilities need to be able to identify links, where they exist, between individual cases of such child abuse and individual faith leaders as well as wider belief, faith or community practices. Where connections are identified and appropriate action is taken, the risk that other children will be similarly abused can be greatly reduced. In some cases, links to a belief in possession may not come to light until some way into the investigation of abuse. Where the concerns relate to a number of children, consideration should be given to whether the Complex (Organised and Multiple) Abuse Procedure should be implemented;
    • Local agencies and institutions should also work to minimise risk of harm, by building trust and understanding of child abuse issues with local communities. Robust local partnerships advance early identification and safeguarding of children. Local agencies and institutions share responsibility for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children and young people. They should act if they have concerns about a child's welfare, and ensure that practices that lead to abuse that may be linked to a belief in spirit possession or any other belief, are challenged and stopped;
    • People working with children should always take advice whenever they feel it is required, in accordance with information sharing protocols and guidance. The fact that a suspected case of abuse or neglect may be linked to spirit possession can initially seem daunting. It is important to use the experience of colleagues, including those in other services, to overcome misgivings and understand complexities. A child's safety and welfare must always come first.

Definitions and Incidence

  1. The term 'belief in spirit possession' is defined for the purposes of this guidance as the belief that an evil force has entered a child and is controlling him or her. Sometimes the term 'witch' is used and is defined here as the belief that a child is able to use an evil force to harm others. There is also a range of other language that is connected to such abuse. This includes black magic, kindoki, ndoki, the evil eye, djinns, voodoo, obeah, demons, and child sorcerers. 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.
  2. Families and children can be deeply worried by the evil that they believe is threatening them, and abuse often occurs when an attempt is made to 'exorcise', or 'deliver' the child. Exorcism is defined here as attempting to expel evil spirits from a child.
  3. The number of identified child abuse cases linked to a belief in spirit possession is small especially when compared to the total number of children known to be abused. Research by Stobart (2006) reviewed child abuse cases that had occurred since January 2000. Thirty-eight cases involving 47 children were found to be relevant and sufficiently documented. This is in comparison to 26,400 children on Child Protection Registers in England at 31st March 2006. Indicators reported in the cases usually involve children aged between 2 and 14, both boys and girls, and have generally been reported through schools or non-governmental organisations. Whilst the number of identified cases is small, the nature of the child abuse can be particularly disturbing and the impact on the child is substantial and serious. 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.

Forms of Abuse

  1. The abuse usually occurs in the household where the child lives. It may also occur in a place of worship where alleged 'diagnosis' and 'exorcism' may take place.
  2. The most common forms of abuse include:
    • Physical Abuse: in the form of beating, shaking, burning, cutting, stabbing, semi-strangulating, tying up the child, or rubbing chilli peppers or other substances on the child's genitals or eyes, or placing chilli peppers or other substances in the child's mouth;
    • Emotional/psychological abuse: in the form of isolation, for example, not allowing a child to eat or share a room with family members or threatening to abandon them, or telling a child they are evil or possessed. The child may also accept the abuse if they are coerced into believing they are possessed;
    • Neglect: in the form of failure to ensure appropriate medical care, supervision, regular school attendance, good hygiene, nourishment, clothing or keep the child warm;
    • Sexual abuse: children abused in this way may be particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, perhaps because they feel powerless and worthless and feel they will not be believed if they tell someone about the abuse.
  3. There have been reported cases of individuals who present themselves as faith leaders/healers being paid by parents and carers to 'exorcise' children. The belief that a child is possessed can be supported by faith leaders and the child, and in some cases the family may be ostracised by community members. The child can come to hold the belief that they are possessed and this may be harmful in itself and can significantly complicate their rehabilitation.
  4. Where such abuse or neglect is identified, some children are placed in an alternative family, through long-term foster care or adoption, and some are returned to the family home within the framework of a child protection plan.
  5. Where abuse exists but is not identified, or there is no intervention to safeguard the child's welfare, children may continue to be severely abused. There are also circumstances where carers or parents believe that a child has passed evil spirits to an unborn child, and professionals will need to be mindful that a pre-birth assessment may be required, and that children subsequently born into the household may be vulnerable to harm.

Why are Children Abused or Neglected in this Way?

  1. It is not helpful to stereotype those who might abuse or neglect a child because of a belief in spirit possession. A belief in 'spirits' and 'possession' is relatively widespread, whilst abuse linked to such beliefs is rare. This kind of abuse is not confined to particular countries, cultures, religions or communities. Abusers may appear to be quite ordinary and may be family members, family friends, carers, faith leaders or other figures in the community. There are, however, a number of common factors that put a child at risk of harm:
    • Rationalising misfortune by attributing it to spiritual forces: As in many child abuse cases, abuse linked to a belief in spirit possession generally occurs when problems within a family or in their broader circumstances exist. In these particular cases a spiritual explanation is sought in order to rationalise misfortune. Child abuse can occur when rationalisation takes the form of believing oneself to be cursed and that a child is the source of the problem because they have become possessed by evil spirits;
    • A child is scapegoated because of an obvious or perceived difference: The reason why a particular child is singled out and accused of being possessed is complex. It often results from a combination of a weak bond of affection between a child and parent or carer, a belief that the child is violating family norms and above all a perception that the child is 'different '. It may be that the child is being cared for by adults who are not the parents, and who do not have the same affection for the child as their own children. A child can also be viewed as being different for disobedience, rebelliousness, over independence, bedwetting, nightmares, illness, perceived or actual physical abnormality or a disability. Disabilities involved in documented cases included learning disabilities, mental health, epilepsy, autism, a stammer and deafness. Many of the children were also described by their families or carers as being naughty. In other cases there were no obvious reasons, but a perceived issue;
    • Belief in evil spirits: In the cases identified by Stobart's (2006) research (see Child Abuse Linked to Accusations of Possession and Witchcraft), every child had an accusation of 'evil' made against him or her. This was commonly accompanied by a belief that they could 'infect' others with such 'evil'. The explanation for how a child becomes possessed varies widely but includes through food that they have been given or through spirits that have been in contact with them;
    • Social factors: A range of social factors that may make a child more vulnerable to accusations of being possessed were also identified by Stobart (2006). These included:
      • Changes in family structure or dynamics - The research found that children had become more vulnerable following a change in family structure. Carers often had new, transient or several partners. The family structure also tended to be complex so that exact relationships to the child were not immediately apparent. This may mean the child is living with extended family or in a private fostering arrangement. In some cases this may even take on a form of servitude;
      • A family's disillusionment with life or negative experience of migration - In the majority of identified cases the families were first or second generation migrants to the UK. The research suggested that the families often suffered from the difficulties and stress of migration including isolation from extended family, a sense of not belonging, alienation or feeling threatened or misunderstood, as well as significantly unfulfilled expectations of quality of life;
      • A parent's or carer's mental health - In over a quarter of identified cases there were concerns for the mental health of a parent or carer. The illnesses involved included post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and schizophrenia.
  2. In working to identify such child abuse or neglect it is important to remember every child is different. Some children may display a combination of indicators of abuse whilst others will attempt to conceal them. In addition to the social factors above, there is a range of common features across identified cases. These indicators of abuse, which may also be common features in (other kinds of abuse), include:
    • A child's body showing signs or marks, such as bruises or burns, from physical abuse;
    • A child becoming noticeably confused, withdrawn, disorientated or isolated and appearing alone amongst other children;
    • Deterioration of a child's personal care - for example through a loss of weight, being hungry, turning up to school without food or lunch money, or being unkempt with dirty clothes and even faeces smeared on to them;
    • Lack of concern or close bond between the child and his or her parent or carer;
    • A child's attendance at school becoming irregular or the child being taken out of school altogether without another school place having been organised, or a deterioration in a child's performance at school;
    • A child reporting that they are or have been accused of being 'evil', and/or that they are having the 'devil beaten out of them'.


  1. Anyone with concerns that a child may have suffered, or is likely to suffer Significant Harm linked to spiritual or religious beliefs should follow the procedures in Part 3 of this manual for Managing Individual Cases where there are Concerns about a Child's Safety and Welfare. The same thresholds for action apply. Professionals who have concerns about a child's welfare should discuss these concerns with their manager or a designated member of staff, or a Named Professional.
  2. Whilst there is a need to be culturally sensitive in working with families where there are these concerns, it is important to remain mindful that the safety and protection of the child are paramount. In view of the nature of the risks a full medical assessment of the child should be considered to establish the overall health of the child, the medical history and the current circumstances.
  3. Abuse linked to a belief in spirit possession can be hard for professionals to accept and it may be difficult to understand what they are dealing with - it can often take a number of visits to recognise such abuse.
  4. In cases of suspected abuse linked to a belief in spirit possession it may be particularly useful to consider the following:
    • How do I understand the particular risk of harm to the child?
      • The completion of a Common Assessment Framework assessment may provide a helpful way of gathering and summarising information about a child so as to clarify whether there is a safeguarding concern or whether other action to assist the child should be undertaken.
    • How do I build a relationship of trust with the child?
      • Children and young people will usually stick to their account and not speak until they feel comfortable. It will be important to spend time with the child alone and build a relationship of trust. It is important to ascertain the child's wishes and feelings and understand the environment in which the child lives;
      • The child must be seen and spoken to on his/her own. Their bedroom or sleeping arrangements must be inspected.
    • What are the beliefs of the family?
      • Beliefs in spirits and possession are widespread. The key feature in cases of abuse is not the beliefs of a family, but that the perpetrator of abuse uses these beliefs as a justification for abuse of a child;
      • You should seek advice if you are dealing with a culture or set of beliefs that you do not understand, or which are unfamiliar to you. Professionals need to have an understanding of religious beliefs and cultural practices in order to help gain the trust of the family or community. The use of correct terminology will help to build up trust with the child and family. Asking questions or seeking advice about a culture, religion, or set of beliefs you are not familiar with.
    • What is the family structure?
      • In cases of abuse linked to a belief in possession, the relationship between the child and their carer may be unclear. These cases of abuse will sometimes relate to the arrival of a new adult into the household, or the arrival of the child, perhaps from abroad. What are the roles of the adults in the household? Who looks after the child? Is the child being privately fostered? If the child has recently arrived, what was their care structure in their country of origin? What is the immigration status of the child? The identities and relationships of all members of the household should be identified, including with documentation. It may be appropriate to consider DNA testing.
    • Are there reasons why the child might be picked on?
      • Are they different from other children in the family or community? Are they disabled? Have their parents been labelled as possessed?
    • Do I need a professional interpreter? What is the preferred language of the child and family?
      • There may be a need for neutral, high quality, gender-appropriate translation or interpretation services. Children should never be expected to interpret on behalf of adults or other family members. If working with a very small community, what is the relationship between interpreter and the family? Are they part of the same social network?

Action to Safeguard

  1. In order to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child in these cases it may be particularly useful to consider:
    • What pressures are the family under?
      • Is there anything you can do to address relevant pressures on the family? These cases of abuse will sometimes relate to blaming the child for something that has gone wrong in the family;
      • Involve the family: A belief that the child is possessed may mean they are stigmatised in their family. Do members of the family have the same views about the situation? If the child has been labelled as possessed, how does this affect their relationship with others in the extended family and community?
    • Is the perpetrator of abuse isolated?
      • The perpetrator may believe that they are doing what they should to rid the child of evil spirits and might even believe that they are not harming the child.
    • Are these beliefs supported by others in the family or in the community?
      • Would it help to involve a senior faith leader?
  2. Any evidence that the parent or carers will take the child out of the country/abandon the child must be taken seriously. 

Services to Support Children

  1. Abuse of a child linked to a belief in possession can take the form of physical, emotional or sexual abuse and neglect. In some cases the abuse can be very severe and there may be a substantial psychological impact on the child, particularly if they are ostracised by the family or community or if they themselves believe that they are possessed.
  2. The services that a child needs will depend on their individual circumstances but services that may be particularly relevant to such abuse include:
    • Children's Social Care, including a placement away from home in foster care, residential care, or adoption;
    • Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS): it may also be appropriate to engage adult mental health services to assess and where appropriate work with the perpetrator of abuse and/or child's parents or carers;
    • Health services, especially for victims of severe abuse or neglect;
    • Faith groups, the family's faith community may need advice from Children's Social Care. They may be able to help a family understand how to treat their child and offer support to the child or family to help promote the welfare of the child. However, care should be taken to establish whether the faith group that the victim's parents or carers are affiliated to support the practice of abusive exorcism. Social workers may also want to seek advice from faith groups to aid their understanding of reasons behind any abuse;
    • Wider family support services from the statutory and voluntary sector;
    • A multi-agency response: There will be a variety of different agencies in the community involved with children and their development. Professionals should be aware of the services that are available locally to support the child and how to gain access to them;
    • The Police: Where a social worker believes that a criminal offence may have been committed, they or their manager should discuss the child with the Police at the earliest opportunity;
    • Schools: Schools may identify concerns about children. Where a child of school age is the subject of a child protection plan the school should be involved in the preparation of the plan, and where appropriate in its delivery.

Concerns about a Place of Worship

  1. Concerns about a place of worship may emerge where:
    • A lack of priority is given to the protection of children and there is a reluctance by some leaders to get to grips with the challenges of implementing sound safeguarding policies or 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 demonization of individuals;
    • There is a promotion of mistrust of secular authorities;
    • There are specific unacceptable practices that amount to abuse.
  2. Services should consider how best to tackle the concerns, whether intervention is needed to safeguard children and whether concerns can be addressed through influence and engagement.