Press release

Action plan to stop child abuse in the name of faith or belief

Ritual child abuse and neglect is being hidden, misunderstood and going unreported. The Department for Education and many stakeholders have drawn up an action plan to identify children at risk and protect them.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

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An action plan to cut through the “wall of silence” around ritual child abuse and neglect in the name of witchcraft, spirit possession, the supernatural and faith has been published today.

The National action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief aims to raise awareness of these appalling crimes and sets out urgent practical steps to build intelligence on the ground to identify children at risk and act to protect them.

Drawn up with faith leaders, charities, the Metropolitan Police, and statutory partners, it says that there needs to be closer engagement with local communities and churches to prevent abuse.

It proposes stronger training and information for social workers, police and other frontline practitioners working with children; and better access to psychological and therapeutic support for victims.

And it sets out work to secure prosecutions by improving support for victims to give evidence in court cases and better awareness of how faith-based abuse links to related crimes, including trafficking, missing children and sexual exploitation or grooming.

Ministers are concerned that while there has been progress in recent years, abuse linked to faith or belief is still misunderstood, hidden and going unreported.

Existing evidence suggests known cases are in the low tens per year, but there are few official statistics, limited research and major gaps in understanding its scale or motivations.

Cases of adults inflicting physical violence or emotional harm on children they regard as witches or possessed by evil spirits are known across the world, almost wholly involving tiny minorities or sub-sects within major religions, as well as pagan faiths.

But evidence suggests that underlying causes are often very similar to other forms of child abuse - with the child being treated as a scapegoat for family stress, domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health problems.

In the last 10 years, there have been 81 recorded police investigations in London of allegations that children have been abused, where faith has been a factor. Research commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills in 2006 set out detailed analysis of 38 cases involving 47 children, from Africa, South Asia and Europe, all who had been abused in the name of possession or witchcraft.

There has been no official research into prevalence commissioned since - although new research for the Department of Education about what is known child abuse linked to faith or belief based on previous research is expected by the end of the year.

This type of abuse has common features including:

  • A wider social or community consensus that witchcraft exists, propagated by faith or influential leaders. This includes beliefs in demons or the devil acting through children or leading them astray (traditionally seen in some Christian beliefs); the evil eye or djinns (some Islamic contexts); and dakini (some Hindu contexts).
  • Belief that the child is the ‘victim’ of a supernatural force and the abuse is designed to ‘save’ him or her by ‘driving out the devil’ or other evil spirits - where the perpetrators may perversely believe that they are doing the right thing.
  • The fear the child may harm or kill their parents, family, relatives or other members of the country.
  • The child’s ‘possession’ accounts for misfortune befalling on those nearest to him or her.
  • Abusers target children that are ‘different’ because they have a disability or learning difficulty; an illness; or are exceptionally bright.
  • Ritual or muti murders, where the killing of children is believed to bring supernatural benefits or the use of their body parts is believed to produce potent magical remedies.
  • Use of belief in magic or witchcraft to create fear in children to make them more compliant when they are being trafficked for domestic slavery and sexual exploitation.

Today’s action plan follows the horrific murder of 15-year-old Kristy Bamu in Newham in December 2010 - and conviction of his sister Magalie and her boyfriend Eric Bikubi. Kristy, who lived in France, was accused by Bikubi of practising ‘kindoki’ or witchcraft and casting spells, during a visit over Christmas. He suffered appalling abuse and torture for three days before drowning in a bath.

Children’s Minister Tim Loughton said:

Child abuse is appalling and unacceptable wherever it occurs and in whatever form it takes. Abuse linked to faith or belief in spirits, witchcraft or possession is a horrific crime, condemned by people of all cultures, communities and faiths - but there has been a ‘wall of silence’ around its scale and extent. It is not our job to challenge people’s beliefs but it is our job to protect children. There can never be a blind eye turned to violence or emotional abuse or even the smallest risk that that religious beliefs will lead to young people being harmed.

The number of recorded cases nationally remains tiny but we know that historically, it goes unreported. Perpetrators go to huge lengths to cover up their abuse and the motivations are complex - often connected with mental illness and other complicated underlying reasons. It’s clear we need to make a stand. There has been only very gradual progress in understanding the issues over the last few years - either because community leaders have been reluctant to challenge beliefs which risk leading to real abuse in their midst; or because authorities misunderstand the causes or are cowed by political correctness.

There are no easy solutions or silver bullets to solving this - this will require hard work building intelligence on the ground so social workers, carers and police can step in early to protect children at risk and bring perpetrators to justice. This plan will help people recognise and know how to act on evidence, concerns and signs that a child’s health and safety is being threatened. Everyone working with children has a responsibility to recognise and know how to act on evidence that a children is being abused.

The Victoria Climbie Foundation UK director Mor Dioum said:

VCF welcomes government efforts to recognise and address child abuse linked to faith or belief. By bringing the issue into the open, and working with our statutory partners, the relevant communities and the voluntary sector, we can better protect and support members of our communities when they seek to highlight their concerns. However, we need to work more effectively with families to achieve better outcomes for children and young people affected by this type of abuse.

NSPCC Chief Executive Andrew Flanagan said:

Child abuse linked to faith or beliefs such as witchcraft must not be tolerated under any circumstances. Hopefully this action plan, which we helped develop, will give professionals the training they need to identify such cases at an early stage and move swiftly to protect the young victims.

The vast majority of people in communities where witchcraft is practised are horrified by these acts and take no part in this atrocious behaviour. So we must not be afraid to raise this issue so the offenders can be exposed. And, most importantly, everyone must play their part by watching out for unusual activity and reporting it as early as possible. We must never forget this is about child cruelty, not culture, and we cannot afford to wait until another child is murdered before decisive action is taken.

Chief Executive of Churches Child Protection Advisory Service Simon Bass said:

CCPAS is delighted with the national action plan. It shows that not only has the government and members of the working group understood the gravity of the problem but that a multi-layered approach is needed if the evil of faith-based abuse is to be combated successfully. We now look forward to working with all parties to implement its proposals.

CCPAS’s particular status within the church community enabled us to pioneer engagement with church communities, which led to us professionally training well over 4,000 leaders and workers in how to prevent abuse from taking place in their churches. We are now well placed to help deliver the other key strand of the action plan’s strategy, empowering practitioners, since we act as the natural bridge between churches and the statutory agencies.

Bishop Dr Joe Aldred said:

Every child has a right to grow up supported by adults to reach their God-given potential. No child deserves to have that life blighted by abuse, whatever the excuse. Whilst in the overwhelming majority of cases children prosper in faith settings, sadly at times their safety is put at jeopardy precisely because this can be used as cover for abuse and too many are unaware of harm that can be, and sometimes is, perpetrated under the cloak of religious belief. This is why we must raise awareness across society of child abuse linked to faith or belief, so the well-being of all children is assured.

Pastor Jean-Bosco Kanyemesha, of the London Fire Church International, Peace International and Congolese Pastorship in the UK said:

Peace International and the Congolese Pastorship UK encourages the implementation of this Action Plan and believes it will contribute effectively to the protection of children within faith organization and will participate to combat all kind of (life-threatening) child abuse. PI and the CPUK believes that effort made by government, children services, civil society, faith communities and community based organisation in order to set this action plan was an adequate response to resolve issues troubling our local communities.

Founder of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, Debbie Ariyo said,

AFRUCA welcomes the publication of the National Action Plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief. We are happy that the government this is taking this initial step to address the issue of branding children as witches or possessed by evil spirits. We will continue to work with partners in the statutory and voluntary sectors, with community organisations across the country as well as internationally, to address this issue, including campaigning for a change in legislation to protect vulnerable children. It is our firm belief that culture and religion should never be an excuse to abuse children. Based on this, our efforts to address this issue in different ways as part of the National Action Plan will continue unabated.

Notes to editors

1) National action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief.

The main elements are:

Engaging communities

  • Conduct further research and learning that informs practice and involves communities.
  • Promote and hear the voice of children and young people as part of existing broader work on this agenda.
  • Develop a network of faith leader champions and a network of community leader champions.
  • Build resilience in families, communities and among faith leaders.
  • Encourage safeguarding training for parents and communities.
  • Encourage community grants for awareness raising work.

Empowering practitioners

  • Encourage initial social work training providers and providers of CPD to cover culture and faith safeguarding issues in their courses. Signpost them to further advice.
  • Engage with front line practitioners in universal services on a range of faith and culture safeguarding issues, including abuse linked to faith or belief.
  • Encourage LSCBs to provide strategic leadership and to work to secure the meaningful engagement of local and faith communities.
  • Raise awareness so that robust, comprehensive multi agency assessments are carried out, leading to informed decisions in this type of case.
  • Develop approaches to support and re-integration for victims - including psychological and therapeutic support.
  • Develop an understanding of underlying issues and indicators of abuse.
  • Improve understanding among inspectors and thus impact of inspection on children at risk of, or being harmed by, abuse linked to faith or belief.

Supporting victims and witnesses

  • Encourage provision of community support for witnesses.
  • Promote more join-up between criminal justice and safeguarding.

Communicating key messages

  • Develop communications and messages shared across the partners.

2) The former Department for Education and Skills commissioned and published a report called: Child Abuse Linked To Accusations of Possession and Witchcraft in June 2006 - detailing desk research and discussions with social workers, school teachers, police officers, voluntary workers and others who had knowledge of aspects of the subject, as well as collating and examining cases from January 2000 onwards

3) The national action plan originated from a roundtable meeting hosted by Children’s Minister Tim Loughton in February 2011 to discuss the issue of abuse and neglect linked to faith - with participants from AFRUCA, the Victoria Climbie Foundation, the Congolese Family Centre, CFAB, CCPAS, Trust for London, the London Safeguarding Children Board (SCB), the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

The participants agreed to set up a national working group to explore the problem further and identify possible solutions. The working group, which was chaired by the Department for Education, has met eight times and held three small-group sessions in 2011-12 which resulted in this action plan.

During 2011 and early 2012 some key achievements of the partners were:

  • In May 2011, a Trust for London / London SCB ‘Safeguarding Children’s Rights’ initiative, exploring belief in witchcraft and spirit possession in London’s African communities.
  • In November 2011, an AFRUCA international conference on ‘Witchcraft Branding, Spirit Possession and Safeguarding African Children’.
  • In December 2011, the London SCB launched the London Culture and Faith Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) Strategy, Training Toolkit and Practice Guidance, concluding their Pan London Safeguarding Children Minority Ethnic Culture and Faith Project.
  • In January 2012, the Metropolitan Police led sessions on ‘Understanding Faith and Cultural Abuse’ at the Association of Chief Police Officers National Child Protection and Abuse Investigation Conference.
  • In March 2012, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Children and Trust for London held an awareness raising event on this type of abuse.
  • In April 2012, start of a literature review commissioned by the Department to find out what is known about child abuse linked to faith or belief, based on previous research. The review is being undertaken by the Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre and the final report of the review is expected in autumn 2012.
  • In April 2012, AFRUCA and Chuka Umunna MP held a summit on abuse of children of African heritage linked to belief in witchcraft or possession.

DfE enquiries

Published 14 August 2012