4.1 Child Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession or Witchcraft: Guidance

This procedure was updated on 19/12/18 and is currently uptodate.




Research indicates that the belief in ‘spirit possession’ or ‘witchcraft’ is widespread across the world. It is not confined to particular countries, cultures or religions, nor is it confined to new immigrant communities in this country.


Although the number of known child abuse cases linked to accusations of ‘spirit possession’ or ‘witchcraft’ in Britain is small, it is possible that a significant number of cases go undetected. The nature of the abuse can be particularly disturbing and the impact on the child is substantial and serious. Department for Education guidance, National action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief, states that there are links between ‘spirit possession’ and ‘witchcraft’ and exploitation in that belief in magic or witchcraft may be used to create fear in children to make them more compliant when they are being trafficked for domestic slavery or sexual exploitation (see Child Sexual Exploitation Guidance).


The term ‘spirit possession’ means that a force, spirit, god or demon has entered a child and is controlling him or her resulting in a change in health or behaviour. Sometimes the term ‘witch’ or ‘witchcraft’ is used. This is the belief that a child is able to use an evil force or supernatural powers to harm others. There is a range of terminology connected to such beliefs, for example black magic, kindoki, ndoki, the evil eye, djinns, voodoo, obeah and child sorcerers.


Although both ‘spirit possession’ and ‘witchcraft’ often relate to perceived evil forces, this is not always the case. ‘Spirit possession’ can be understood to include being taken over by ‘the Holy Spirit’, for example, and since the mid-20th century, witchcraft has increasingly been perceived to include both malevolent and benevolent forces, the latter often involving healing.


These beliefs occupy a broad spectrum, and the effects range from harmless to harmful. Belief in spirit possession and witchcraft is not of itself evidence of maltreatment.


In cases of ‘spirit possession’ or ‘witchcraft’ which involve children, the parent/carer views the child as ‘different’ and attributes this to the child being ‘possessed’. This can lead to attempts to exorcise the child. The reasons for being ‘different’ can be varied, and include disobedience, independence, bedwetting, nightmares or illness. In some cases there will be no obvious difference and the child will have been targeted because they are perceived to be ‘spiritually’ different. The attempt to exorcise may involve beating, burning, starvation, cutting/stabbing and/or isolation within the household, all of which are abuse.


Families, carers and the children involved can hold genuine beliefs that evil forces are at work. Families and children can be deeply worried by the evil that they believe is threatening them. There may also be an element of the adult gaining some gratification through the ritualistic abuse of the child, which may even result in the death of the child.



Where there is abuse of children accused of spirit possession or witchcraft, this abuse can be understood using one or more of the four identified forms of child abuse: physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect.


Indicators of abuse linked to belief in spirit possession, which may also be common features in other kinds of abuse, include:

  • 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’
  • a child’s body having signs of physical abuse, such as bruises or burns
  • a child becoming noticeably confused, withdrawn, disorientated or isolated, and appearing alone amongst other children
  • a child’s personal care deteriorating, for example through weight loss, being hungry, turning up to school without food or lunch money, or being unkempt with dirty clothes
  • a child’s attendance at school becoming irregular or the child being taken out of school altogether without another school place having been organised
  • a deterioration in a child’s performance at school.
  • evidence that the child’s parent or carer does not show concern for, or have a close bond with, the child

There are various social reasons that make a child more vulnerable to an accusation of ‘spirit possession’ or ‘witchcraft’. These include family stress and/or a change in the family structure, a family’s disillusionment with life or a negative experience of migration, and the mental health of the parent/carer.


In cases which involve ‘spirit possession’ or ‘witchcraft’, the child is perceived to be different. A child with a disability may be viewed as different because of their disability, and the disability may be attributed to the ‘spirit possession’ or ‘witchcraft’. The disability may be mild or severe, and may be a physical, sensory or learning disability or mental illness. Disabilities involved in documented cases include:

  • Stammer
  • Epilepsy
  • Deafness
  • Learning disabilities
  • Autism
  • Mental health issues
  • Life-limiting illness.

Action to be taken


While the number of known cases of abuse related to spirit possession or witchcraft is small, professionals should be alert to possible indicators and must follow standard child safeguarding procedures where abuse or neglect is suspected, including those that may be related to a belief in spirit possession or witchcraft (see Neglect Guidance).


Key considerations in dealing with cases of abuse linked to spirit possession or witchcraft are:

  • Child abuse is never acceptable in any community or culture, under any circumstances. The abuser may believe they are delivering the child of evil spirits and that they are helping the child rather than harming them. Holding such a belief is no defence or mitigation should a child be abused.
  • Child abuse linked to a belief in spirit possession often stems from a child being used as a scapegoat, with the underlying reasons for the abuse often being due to factors such as family stress, deprivation, domestic violence, substance abuse and/or mental health problems. Professionals should seek to identify any underlying reasons and consider whether there is anything that can and should be done to address pressures on the family.
  • 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.
  • Knowledge and understanding of culture and faith is critical to effective assessments of risk or harm. Practitioners should be sensitive to religious and cultural beliefs and practices, and should seek advice if dealing with a culture or set of beliefs that are unfamiliar. Practitioners should also seek advice if they find that dealing with such cases challenges or comes into conflict with their own faith or belief.
  • 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.
  • Professionals should ensure that all the agencies in the child’s network understand the situation so that they are in a position to support the child appropriately. The child can themselves come to hold the belief that they are possessed and this can significantly complicate their rehabilitation.

Related guidance

Related Policies, Procedures, and Guidance

This page is correct as printed on Friday 12th of July 2024 09:53:42 PM please refer back to this website (http://bscb.procedures.org.uk) for updates.