Project Violet - The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) response to abuse related to faith and belief

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Project Violet - The MPS response to abuse related to faith and belief.

Faith and belief-based child abuse, including spirit possession, is a hidden crime and therefore difficult to quantify in terms of the magnitude. From our own research and in consultation with the community, we know this is under-reported. Nonetheless it requires a sound understanding on the part of all professionals of the many and complex issues that can be involved.

What is Child Abuse linked to faith and belief?

There is no agreed definition of or consensus about the concept of 'child abuse linked to faith or belief'

Child abuse linked to faith or belief can be separated into four areas as follows;

  • Abuse that occurs as a result of a child being accused of witchcraft or of being a witch
  • Abuse that occurs as a result of a child being accused of being 'possessed by spirits' that is, 'spirit possession'
  • Ritualistic abuse
  • Satanic abuse
     

 The forms the abuse can take include;

  • Physical abuse: beating, burning, cutting, stabbing, semi-strangulating, tying up the child, or rubbing chilli peppers or other substances on the child's genitals or eyes
  • Emotional abuse: in the form of isolation {e.g. not allowing a child to ear or share a room with family members or threatening to abandon them}. The child may also be persuaded that they are possessed
  • Neglect: failure to ensure appropriate medical care, supervision, school attendance, good hygiene, nourishment, clothing or warmth
  • Sexual abuse;  within the family or community, children abused in this way may be particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation

Where does it take place?

Child Abuse linked to faith and/or belief is not confined to one faith, nationality or ethnic community. Examples have been recorded worldwide among Europeans, Africans, Asians and elsewhere as well as in Christian, Muslim, Hindu and pagan faiths among others.

Not all those who believe in witchcraft or spirit possession harm children.  Data on numbers of known cases suggests that only a small minority of people with such beliefs go on to abuse children.

Under reporting of this form of child abuse is extremely likely. Data collection may reflect closer scrutiny of communities in which cases typifying this kind of abuse have been seen. The MPS record such data.

Common factors that put a child at risk of harm include;

  • Belief in evil spirits: this is commonly accompanied by a belief that the child 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 flown around them;
  • Scapegoating because of a difference: it may be that the child is being looked after by adults who are not their parents (i.e. privately fostered), and who do not have the same affection for the child as their own children;
  • Rationalising misfortune by attributing it to spiritual forces and when a carer views a child as being 'different' because of disobedience, rebelliousness, over-independence, bedwetting, nightmares, illness or because they have a perceived or physical abnormality or a disability;  Disabilities involved in documented cases included learning disabilities, mental ill health, epilepsy, autism, a stammer and deafness;
  • Changes and / or complexity in family structure or dynamics: there is research evidence (see Stobart, Child Abuse linked to Accusations of Spirit Possession - see related links] that children become more vulnerable to accusations of spirit possession following a change in family structure (e.g. a parent or carer having a new partner or 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 (see Children Living Away from Home Procedure, Private Fostering - see related link).  In some cases, this may even take on a form of servitude;
  • Change of family circumstances for the worse: a spiritual explanation is sought in order to rationalise misfortune and the child is identified as the source of the problem because they have become possessed by evil spirits. Research evidence is that the family's disillusionment very often had its roots in negative experiences of migration:

    In the vast majority of identified cases in the UK to date, the families were first or second generation migrants suffering from isolation from extended family, a sense of not belonging or feeling threatened or misunderstood. These families can also have significantly unfulfilled expectations of quality of life in the UK;
  • Parental difficulties: a parent's mental ill health appears to be attributed to a child being possessed in a significant minority of cases. Illnesses typically involved include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and schizophrenia.
     

The Law in relation to child abuse linked to faith and belief

There are sufficient existing laws within the UK with which to prosecute those responsible for child abuse linked to faith and/or belief thereby negating any need for further more specific offences. A full list of relevant legislation can be found on the National Action plan to tackle abuse linked to faith or belief - see related publications on this webpage.

How Project Violet can help

  • Develop prevention strategies and initiatives
  • Educate and raise awareness amongst professionals, communities and faith leaders
  • Provide advice, support and guidance for referrals and investigations
  • Develop intelligence opportunities

How you can help us

Contact Project Violet via our contact email - see related contacts on this webpage, if you have any concerns or suspicions around this subject.

By recognising that faith and belief may have positive or negative impacts on children it may be necessary to ask open, non-intrusive and non-judgemental questions in order to assess risk.

What to do if you suspect a child is at risk from abuse linked to faith and/or belief

Concerns about a child’s welfare can vary greatly in terms of their nature and seriousness.  If you have concerns about a child, you should ask for help. You should discuss your concerns with your manager, a named or designated professional or a designated member of staff.

For example

  • for schools staff (both teaching and non-teaching) concerns should be reported via the schools’ or colleges’ designated safeguarding lead. The safeguarding lead will usually decide whether to make a referral to children’s social care;
  • for early years practitioners, the Early Years Foundation Stage sets out that providers should ensure that they have a practitioner who is designated to take a lead responsibility for safeguarding children who should liaise with local statutory children’s services agencies:
  • Child-minders should take that responsibility themselves and should notify children’s social care (and, in emergencies, the police) if they have concerns about the safety or welfare of a child;
  • for health practitioners, all providers of NHS funded health services should identify a named doctor and a named nurse (and a named midwife if the organisation provides maternity services) for safeguarding. GP practices should have a lead and deputy lead for safeguarding, who should work closely with named GPs. Named practitioners should promote good practice within their organisation, provide advice and expertise for fellow practitioners, and ensure safeguarding training is in place;

and

  • for the police, all forces have child abuse investigation units or teams, which normally take responsibility for investigating child abuse cases. If you are a police officer with concerns about a child or young person, you can speak to your child abuse investigation unit or team for advice.

You can also seek advice at any time from the NSPCC helpline - see related contacts on this webpage.

Publications on this subject which may be of interest are listed below.

To view - see external links on this webpage;

  • Eleanor Stobart report 2006 - Child abuse linked to accusations of 'possessiion' and 'witchcraft'
  • Unicef children accused of witchcraft study report
  • National action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief