3.8.5 Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession


A summary of this chapter is available – see the Factsheets section in Local Resources.


Guidance - Child abuse linked to faith or belief: national action plan


Organised and Complex Abuse Procedure


This chapter was amended in October 2019. Section 1, Key Considerations was updated in line with local practice.

1. Key Considerations

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:

  • 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, cultural 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 have suffered, or are likely to suffer, 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 who have suffered or are likely to suffer 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 Making a Referral following the Identification of Child Safety and Welfare Concerns Procedure;
  • 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;
  • Practitioners 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 Organised and Complex Abuse Procedure should be implemented;
  • Practitioners should explore whether these beliefs are supported by others in the family or the wider community, and whether this is an isolated case or if other children from the same community are being treated in a similar manner. Where connections are identified and appropriate action taken, the risk that other children will be similarly abused can be greatly reduced;
  • Therefore, local agencies and institutions should 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;
  • Where an interpreter is required, family members should not be used and, if working within a small community, practitioners should ensure that the interpreter and family are not part of the same social network.

2. Definitions

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.

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.

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.

3. Forms of Abuse

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.

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, warm and clean home environment and nourishment;
  • 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.

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.

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.

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 practitioners 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.

4. Risks

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, bed wetting, 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, 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;
    • Where parents/carers have specific spiritual, cultural or religious beliefs, which may involve how the child receives health care and treatment or general nutrition, the outcome can be that the child's health and well-being can be dangerously compromised. Non-attendance at or repeated cancellations of health appointments and lack of access to the child on visits are indicators that should increase concern about the child's welfare;
    • Concerns about a Place of worship – these may emerge where:
      • A lack of priority is given to the protection of children and there is a reluctance by some leaders to implement sound safeguarding policies and practices;
      • Assumptions exist that people in their community would not abuse children or there is a belief that a repentance for an act of abuse means that the adult no longer poses a risk;
      • There is a denial or minimisation of the rights of the child or the demonization of individuals;
      • There is a promotion of secular authorities;
      • There are specific unacceptable practices that amount to abuse.

5. Indicators

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'.

6. Protection and Action to be Taken

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 Making a Referral following the Identification of Child Safety and Welfare Concerns Procedure.

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. 

Abuse linked to a belief in spirit possession can be hard for practitioners to accept and it may be difficult to understand what they are dealing with.

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 labeled 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?
  • Any evidence that the parent or carers will take the child out of the country/abandon the child must be taken seriously.

7. Services to Support Children

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.

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. Practitioners 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.