The challenge of witchcraft to child protection social services

Jesunha Abasi* is an independent social worker serving families across several London boroughs. He decided to become a social worker after being moved by the case of Victoria Climbié, the eight-year-old girl who was brutally murdered by her guardians after they accused her of practising witchcraft.

Seven years after the report into her death, he says social workers still need to improve how they deal with accusations of spirit possession.

“I know cases where children are being abused for witchcraft,” says Abasi, who has now been practising for three years. “Every borough may have 10 or 15 churches where these beliefs are practised. In some cases social workers get to know about it – often in areas where these cases have gone on before – but even if it goes on file, nothing more happens than that.”

“By the time the cases get referred to me as an independent, awful damage has already been done. Most practitioners don’t know how to deal with a case like that. They think it’s an ‘African problem’, so they sweep it under the carpet.

“One child I am working with suffered serious emotional and physical abuse because concerns were ignored.”

Keen to learn more

However, despite Abasi’s concerns, it’s clear that individual social workers are keen to learn more. A conference on the issue held in November last year by Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (Afruca) was fully booked. High demand means that two more have been organised: one this month and another later this year.

“Practitioners are waking up to gaps in their knowledge, and want to know more,” says director of Afruca Debbie Ariyo. “But the training is patchy. We are seeing isolated examples of good practice rather than systematic prevention. Many social workers still do not even know what witchcraft is.”

Children accused of witchcraft – also known as “spirit possession” and “juju” – are alleged to be using supernatural powers to control people or events. A “witch child” may be blamed for causing a disability, breaking up a marriage or starting an illness. Once made, these accusations can be used to justify serious physical, emotional or sexual abuse, frequently in the name of “exorcising” the child. In the few cases researchers have analysed, the perpetrators tend to be carers – often not the natural parents – and the abuse generally takes place in the home.

The last significant survey into the prevalence of witchcraft was conducted in the wake of the Climbié case. The report found 72 cases where accusations of witchcraft and spirit possession had led to child abuse between 2000 and 2006. If this figure is representative, it means that witchcraft allegations are involved in just 0.1% of all child abuse cases in the UK. But with rising migrant populations, particularly from West Africa, there are fears that many more cases may be happening off the radar.

Hidden problem

For a sense of the scale of the problem, Community Care contacted eight local authorities: Southwark, Lambeth, Tower Hamlets, Hillingdon, Kensington and Chelsea, Hounslow, Croydon and Essex. Not one would talk about the issue.

Abasi says he isn’t surprised: “Local authorities don’t want publicity. They’re scared. But as an African, I believe this has to be brought out into the open. Many people in my community believe in it – and some of them are social workers.”

In response to the accusation that local authorities may be failing to protect ­children in such circumstances, Colin Green, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ families, communities and young people committee, says: “Religious and cultural practices are not and should not be immune from child protection legislation and councils should be tackling this wherever they come across it.”

The Department for Children, Schools and Families issued guidance to practitioners handling cases of witchcraft and spirit ­possession in 2007, but Nushra Mansuri, professional officer of children’s services issues at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), has serious concerns about its effectiveness:

“My concern is that this kind of guidance remains on the periphery. It’s up to children’s safeguarding boards and local authorities to give practitioners the confidence to use it, but we’re not confident that the training is there. The very fact that the guidance isn’t statutory sends a message.”

Charities like Afruca are campaigning to make the allegation of witchcraft a criminal offence. Although the DCSF says that it is “consulting on revised guidelines”, the department declined to comment on their implementation or status.

Meanwhile, other statutory services specialising in this area seem to be under attack. The Metropolitan Police’s specialist human trafficking unit is set to close later this year. The six pilots in preventive methods set up after the abuse of “Child B” – the 2005 story of an eight-year-old girl who was abused in London after being accused of witchcraft – have not been extended.

Most preventive work is conducted by voluntary bodies such as the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) and Afruca, with the latter running training programmes for practitioners, conferences and parental training workshops.

Tower Hamlets’ African families’ service is one of the few examples of good practice led by a local authority in the fight against witchcraft abuse. It’s well known for its child protection seminars, parenting courses and highly diverse workforce. Although the council refused to comment about its work, citing the “sensitivity surrounding this area” as justification, Bob Pull, a former detective inspector specialising in child abuse who now works with CCPAS, has worked with the council and speaks highly of its services:

“I don’t believe any other London ­borough provides this service. I was ­particularly helped when I attended their training course on African families, which covered everything from communication to food preferences. Another resource they provide is contact with a group of African pastors and church leaders at a regular bimonthly child protection group, which allows good safeguarding to be shared across faiths.”

Families where accusations of witchcraft are putting children at risk must be handled sensitively, Pull has found. Trying to convince carers that their beliefs are wrong or misguided will almost certainly fail, and risks insulting their culture. The best way forward is to work in partnership:

Mother was persuaded

“In one case a mother was accusing her 15-year-old daughter of witchcraft and keeping her out of school. Social services were struggling to help because the mother thought they [the practitioners] were sent by the devil. It was only by working with the local church and the police that the mother was won round and eventually allowed her child to access education,” he says.

“If you don’t want to isolate families, it’s important to identify the motive of the abuse and consider whether it’s premeditated or simply down to a lack of knowledge. Working with the faith sector may also provide better outcomes for the child than if a purely secular perspective had been used.”

Clearly, social workers need proper ­support to resolve these complex cases. But many still receive no training – the only reason that Abasi knows anything about witchcraft is because he is a member of the African community. In speaking out, he says he is desperate to see social workers better educated about these cases so that they will stop being swept under the carpet.

“You’ve got to know about the African way of life and how it works if you’re going to solve these cases,” he says. “If you’re allocated a case and you have no idea about Africans let alone this complicated practice, you are going to ignore it. It goes on all the time, and children die as a result. Something has to be done.”

* Not his real name

Duty of care

Although it is not a statutory offence to accuse a child of witchcraft, practitioners have a duty to safeguard all children from abuse under the 2006 Working Together guidelines. This protection applies to families from all cultures, including those that practise witchcraft.

Any concerns about a child suffering significant harm should trigger an enquiry under section 47 of the Children Act 1989.

Most London boroughs have also adopted the London Child Safeguarding Procedures which include the issues of spirit possession and witchcraft.

In 2007 the government published non-statutory good practice guidance to help practitioners apply Working Together to the particular needs of children who were being abused because of a belief in spirit possession.

Research into witchcraft

The last major investigation into witchcraft in the UK was conducted in 2006. From an analysis of social worker reports, 74 cases of abuse clearly linked to spirit possession were identified from 2000, but to safeguard against double counting, only 38 of cases with identifying factors were analysed.

The report Child Abuse Linked to Accusations of “Possession” and “Witchcraft” was conducted by Eleanor Stobart for the then Department of Education and Skills

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