Reports of child abuse related to accusations of witchcraft are on the rise in London, with 27 allegations made to the Metropolitan Police in the past year and 148 cases since 2004. Yet the people charged with preventing these cases from happening are working with increasingly scarce resources.
There have been concerns for a number of years about child abuse linked to witchcraft. These cases typically involve children being physically assaulted, often very seriously and sometimes fatally, in the belief that this will rid them of evil spirits. Boys and girls of all ages, can be subject to abuse of this kind – frequently perpetrated by their parents or carers. Sometimes, they are helped by people from outside the family, such as religious figures.
There have been a number of infamous cases of of this kind of abuse in the UK over the past 10 to 15 years. These include 15-year-old Kristy Bamu who was tortured and drowned by his sister and her boyfriend in 2010 and 8-year-old Victoria Climbié, who died at the hands of her great aunt and her partner.
Victoria had been burnt with cigarettes, beaten and tied up for long periods. In 2001, the torso of a child dubbed “Adam” was discovered in the river Thames; the child was eventually identified as 6-year-old Patrick Erhabor, originally from Nigeria and it is widely believed he too was the victim of a witchcraft-linked murder.
In response to the rise in cases, the Metropolitan Police has produced a new training film and met with professionals working with children to raise awareness of the problem. This follows a series of earlier measures, including a government-initiated national action plan for abuse linked to faith and guidance from the Metropolitan Police on handling abuse linked to belief in spirit possession, both produced in 2012.
All are encouraging moves. The number of reported cases is relatively small and they constitute only a tiny proportion of the many thousands of child abuse and neglect cases that are brought to the authorities. This issue does therefore need to be kept in perspective but the severe violence typically inflicted on these children means it is vital that agencies are properly aware of this phenomenon and fully equipped to respond to it.
There have been concerns in the past about how care workers and authorities have handled these cases, particular that of Victoria Climbié, which again makes the latest initiatives welcome. But they also raise a number of issues.
Abuse related to belief in witchcraft is part of a changing picture. The kind of abuse brought to welfare services and the police are different from the past. They now have to handle cases of female genital mutilation, child sexual exploitation and forced marriage. And more and more instances of institutional abuse, past and present are coming to their attention.
And they have to deal with these cases on top of their countless routine – though no less serious – cases, many of which are made up of intra-familial physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect.
Faced with all of these challenges, it should not be surprising that child protection workers sometimes make mistakes. Indeed, it seems that hardly a month passes without a new and major child protection “scandal”. Agency workers are invariably accused of failing to protect children, as was seen in the most recent example of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. It is, of course, essential that agency workers fulfil their professional responsibilities and it is only right that they face sanction when they do not.
But abuse linked to witchcraft, like other “new” forms of abuse, is an example of the enormous difficulties that professionals involved in child protection face. These cases underline the importance of ensuring that child protection workers are fully equipped for their jobs, especially in terms of being adequately resourced. That means both manageable workloads and adequate supervision or access to training.
The fact that they are not well equipped was made clear when the NSPCC recently revealed that English and Welsh police services are struggling to deal with the number and scale of cases involving online child abuse images.
This is not a new phenomenon. In my own research into internet child sexual abuse more than 10 years ago, I found that the police were struggling even then to cope with the number of online images and abuse cases that were known to them.
If children are to be protected from abuse, no matter what form it takes, agency workers must be properly equipped. Until they have the appropriate resources, child abuse will continue to take place when it could be prevented. It is a depressing reality that while the demands on the child protection system continue to rise – as these latest figures suggest – the resources allocated to it continue to decline.