1.4.6 Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief


This guidance is intended to help raise awareness of Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief (CALFB).  It aims to support the identification of abuse linked to faith or belief and describes the action that should be taken to safeguard the child (ren) concerned and promote their welfare.


In December 2018, this guidance was extensively updated and should be read in full.

1. Introduction

This guidance is intended to help raise awareness of Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief (CALFB).  It aims to support the identification of abuse linked to faith or belief, and describes the action that should be taken to safeguard the child(ren) concerned and promote their welfare. 

In 2017 there were 1460 reported cases of children being abused in the name of faith or belief (this is in comparison to 970 reported cases of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Of those 1460 cases in the UK, 103 were recorded in West Yorkshire; 43 in Leeds and 61 in Bradford. As knowledge and awareness of CALFB increases, more cases are coming to the attention of practitioners.

CALFB most often concerns a pre-adolescent children, who are abused either emotionally, physically, mentally, financially or sexually; simply because the perpetrator thinks that the child is possessed by something that they believe in. Research has shown that cases of CALFB usually involve children aged 2 to 14, both boys and girls, and are most often reported through schools or non-statutory organisations. The referrals usually take place at a point when the situation has escalated and become visible outside the family, meaning that the child may have been already been subjected to harm for a lengthy period of time.

CALFB is not always about religion. In fact in most cases religion does not form any part of the beliefs,  more often any abuse will be based on 'superstitions'.

2. Definition

For the purposes of this guidance the term 'abuse linked to faith or belief' includes belief in the following:

  • Witchcraft;
  • Spirit Possession;
  • Demons;
  • The Devil;
  • Evil Eye;
  • Djinns;
  • Dakini;
  • Kindoki;
  • Muti Murders.

(Please note this is not an exhaustive list).

In addition, fear of the supernatural is often used as a way to make children compliant at home. Children who behave badly are told they are possessed and will have to be punished. Children who are seen as being possessed may undergo a variety of 'treatments' or rituals. If these do not work, the child may be abandoned or trafficked for domestic slavery or child sexual exploitation, or in extreme cases, killed.

CALFB can also be linked to other crimes and harmful practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), 'So Called' Honour Based Violence or Forced Marriage. 

It is important to remember that the beliefs which are the focus of this guidance are not confined to one faith, nationality or ethnic community, nor are they confined to new immigrant communities in this country.

3. Causes

A child can be blamed or labelled as possessed by their family, the community or local leaders for a range of different reasons. Common justifications given include:

  • Belief in evil spirits: Belief in evil spirits that can 'possess' children is often accompanied by a belief that a possessed child can 'infect' others with the condition. This could be through contact with shared food, or simply being in the presence of the child;
  • Scapegoating: A child could be singled out as the cause of misfortune within the home, such as financial difficulties, divorce, infidelity, illness or death. Victoria Climbié was deemed a witch because her parents separated and she was thought to be the cause;
  • Bad Behaviour: Sometimes poor or challenging behaviour is attributed to spiritual forces. Examples include a child who is seen as disobedient, rebellious or overly independent, or a child who wets the bed, has nightmares or falls ill;
  • Physical differences: A child could be singled out for having a physical difference or disability. Documented cases include children with learning disabilities, mental health issues, epilepsy, autism, stammers and deafness. Left handedness can also be considered a sign of the devil or demon within a child;
  • Gifts and uncommon characteristics: If a child has a particular skill or talent, this can sometimes be rationalised as the result of possession or witchcraft. This can also be the case if the child is from a multiple or difficult pregnancy;
  • Complex family structure/changes in family structure: Research suggests that a child living with extended family, non-biological parent or foster parents is at greater risk. In these situations, they are more likely to have been subject to trafficking and made to work in servitude.

Concerns about places of worship may emerge where:

  • A lack of priority is given to the protection of children and there is reluctance by some leaders to get to grips with the challenges of implementing sound safeguarding policies and procedure;
  • 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 a promotion of mistrust of secular authorities;
  • There are specific unacceptable practices that amount to abuse.
Abuse linked to faith or belief can happen anywhere, but will most often start within the family home, following which a child may be taken to a 'practitioner' or 'witchdoctor'.

4. The Impact on the Child

The number of known cases of child abuse linked to accusations of "possession" or "witchcraft" is increasing, and children involved can suffer damage to their physical and mental health, their capacity to learn, their ability to form relationships and to their self-esteem. In addition the accusation of witchcraft dehumanises and criminalises the child thereby opening the door for other forms of abuse including physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect.

Such abuse generally occurs when a carer views a child as being "different", attributes this difference to the child being "possessed" or involved in "witchcraft" and attempts to remove the believed possession from the child.

In most cases where there are multiple siblings, there will  only be one sibling who is singled out and deemed possessed and blamed for all negative issues and occurrences which then happen within that family unit.

Any siblings or other children in the household may be well cared for with all their needs met by the parents and carers. 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 abuse.

It is also important to recognise that parents/carers or family members may also be at risk of financial abuse, by persons pretending to be 'healers' extorting money on someone's belief or tradition.

5. Signs of Abuse

The signs of abuse linked to faith or belief are similar to other forms of child abuse. However, children abused for the purpose of removal of demons or possessions often display 'particular and significant' signs of abuse either physically, in their presentation or their behaviours:

  • Clothing – It is believed by some that a demon is represented by fire and in order to extinguish the demon the child must be cooled down as much as possible. Children can be found in minimal clothing for this reason;
  • Scars – injuries relating to CALFB often have significant scars such as cuts. These are often done on the torso or back of the child out of sight. One such process of 'bloodletting' or Hijamas is done through the head or back of the child and often not very visible;
  • Restraint Markings – Children undergoing this form of abuse often will not be willingly engaging and may be offered numbing creams or lotions.  As such they are tied down or held and may have marks around the neck, wrists and ankles;
  • Water / Magical Drinks – drinks are one of the most commonly occurring ways parents choose to 'help' their child, however the contents of the drinks, often a small bottle of water, are not checked. As such what parents are thinking is water can actually be anything. In some cases this has included salt water mixture, cannabis, GHB and other class A drugs, infused with the water to make the child appear compliant. In fact, the water is poisoning the children drinking it;
  • Ruqyah – this is a prayer read out from the Qu'ran. The prayer itself does not refer to demons, witches etc. but the person reading this aloud in front of the child is said to then be able to tell if the child is possessed or not. A child may have explicit knowledge of, or make referral to this prayer.

6. Acting on Any Concerns

All agencies should be alert to the indicators described in Section 5, Signs of Abuse and should be able to identify children at risk of this type of abuse and respond appropriately to prevent it, or refer to Children's Social Care Services where there is a risk of significant harm to the child.

General / non specific concerns about possible harmful practices which are being promoted by a particular organisation or Faith Leader should be referred to Early Help Services, who will work with the families and the communities concerned to build resilience and reduce their vulnerability to influence by Faith Leaders who promote this type of abuse. Children who may be at risk should be supported by a Team Around the Family (TAF), and schools and other organisations can be used to offer peer support and promote messages about the illegal practices.

Concerns that a child or children have suffered or are likely to suffer significant harm should be referred to Children's Social Care Services following your individual agency safeguarding children procedures. To support the referral the practitioner should, if possible and where it would not cause any unnecessary delay to or impact upon the referral, identify:

  • Whether the beliefs are supported by others in the family or in the community, and whether this is an isolated case or if other children from the same community are being treated in a similar manner;
  • If there is a faith community and leader which the family and the child adhere to and find out:
    • The details of the Faith Leader and faith community which the family and child adhere to;
    • The exact address of the premises where worship or meetings take place.
  • Further information about the beliefs of the adherents and whether they are aligned to a larger organisation in the UK or abroad (websites are particularly revealing in terms of statements of faith and organisational structures).

Where possible, consent to contact Childrens Social Care Services should be sought from the parent / carer, unless to do so would place the child at further risk of abuse. If there is a suggestion that the parent or carers will take the child out of the country consent should not be sought and this must be conveyed to Childrens Social Care Services as part of the referral.

If the concern relates to a professional (e.g. Faith Leader) consideration should also be given to informing the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO)

7. Assessments

Where a child is deemed to be suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, Children's Social Care Services must respond with a multi agency Strategy Discussion and Single Assessment which takes into account the dimension of the beliefs expressed by the child and family.

The assessment should aim to fully understand the background and context to the beliefs in order to establish the facts i.e. what is happening to the child. Independent advisors should be considered to provide specialist input where possible.

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 regarding possible prevention.

The child must be seen and spoken to on their own. The child's bedroom or sleeping arrangements must be inspected. 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.