National action plan for tackling child abuse linked to faith or belief

The Government has today published a National action plan for tackling child abuse linked to faith or belief for England which brings together actions agreed between central Government and local statutory partners, faith leaders, voluntary sector organisations and the Metropolitan Police.

The action plan is intended to help raise awareness of the issue of child abuse linked to faith or belief and to encourage people to take practical steps to prevent such abuse. It looks at tackling abuse linked to faith or belief from the perspective of the child, parent, community and faith group members and child practitioners. It is organised into four themes: engaging communities; empowering practitioners; supporting victims and witnesses; and communicating key messages. The action plan highlights areas where more needs to be done by government, local agencies, voluntary and faith and community sector partners to address this horrific form of abuse.

In early 2011 Debbie Ariyo, Chief Executive of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (AFRUCA) raised with Tim Loughton MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, the issue of abuse and neglect resulting from accusations in some migrant African communities in England that children were witches or possessed by evil spirits. The minister held a roundtable meeting in February 2011 to discuss the issue with participants from AFRUCA, the Victoria Climbié Foundation, the Congolese Family Centre, Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB), the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS), Trust for London, London Safeguarding Children Board, the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service. It was agreed that stronger coordination of activity was needed to raise awareness of the issue, develop the skills of practitioners and support local communities to tackle such abuse. A working group was established to develop the action plan and to ensure ownership rested jointly with all partners.

The Plan’s key messages are as follows:

  • Child abuse is condemned by people of all cultures, communities and faiths, and is never acceptable under any circumstances. Child abuse related to belief includes inflicting physical violence or emotional harm on a child by stigmatising or labelling them as evil or as a witch. Where this type of abuse occurs it causes great distress and suffering to the child.
  • Everyone working or in contact with children has a responsibility to recognise and know how to act on evidence, concerns and signs that a child’s health, development and safety is being or may be threatened, especially when they suffer or are likely to suffer significant harm.
  • Standard child safeguarding procedures apply and must always be followed in all cases where abuse or neglect is suspected including those that may be related to particular belief systems.
  • The number of cases of child abuse linked to a belief in spirits, possession and witchcraft is small, but where it occurs the impact on the child is great, causing much distress and suffering to the child. It is likely that a proportion of this type of abuse remains unreported. Research commissioned by the Department for Education in 2006 reviewed child abuse cases that had occurred between 2000 and 2005 to identify any cases where the abuse was linked to accusations of possession or witchcraft. 38 cases involving 47 children were found to be relevant and sufficiently well documented. The children came from a variety of backgrounds including African, South Asian and European.
  • Child abuse linked to faith or belief may occur where a child is treated as a scapegoat for perceived failure. Whilst specific beliefs, practices, terms or forms of abuse may exist, the underlying reasons for the abuse are often similar to other contexts in which children become at risk. These reasons can include family stress, deprivation, domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health problems. Children who are different in some way, perhaps because they have a disability or learning difficulty, an illness or are exceptionally bright, can also be targeted in this kind of abuse.

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