On Christmas Day in 2010, 15-year-old Kristy Bamu was murdered while visiting his sister and her partner, Eric Bikubi, in London.
Bikubi accused Kristy of “Kindoki” or witchcraft and he, with Kristy’s sister, subjected Kristy to what has been described as “unimaginable violence”.
In the three days leading up to his death, Kristy was tortured and endured such agony that he begged to die before he drowned in the bath, having finally “admitted” to being a sorcerer.
In London alone, The Metropolitan Police Service investigates an average of nine cases each year, where concerns for a child’s welfare have been identified and a belief in witchcraft or spirit or demonic possession has featured. It is believed that many more cases exist but are not brought to the attention of child protection agencies.
Cases of abuse linked to a belief that result in the death of a child are thankfully very rare; but children do suffer significant physical, emotional, sexual harm and neglect in the name of exorcism or deliverance.
Children believed to be possessed by evil beings and accused of witchcraft have been subjected to atrocious levels of violence. What is striking about these cases is the rapid escalation of cruelty and brutality children endure from the point they are accused.
Who is affected?
Belief in supernatural powers and control of a person by visiting entities exists across faiths and is not limited to particular countries or cultures.
Those vulnerable to accusation can be of any age. Children born with physical disability, breech births, even twins may be at risk.
Epilepsy, autism, learning difficulties, behavioural problems and bedwetting could indicate spirit possession or witchcraft in the mind of an abuser.
Often a child will be blamed for death, illness, separation, financial difficulty or any misfortune experienced within the household.
Trafficked children or those in private fostering arrangements can be vulnerable to accusations. They might be seen as intruders, bringing bad luck with them. Victims of trafficking are often threatened with voodoo to keep them compliant and silent.
Families and guardians sometimes make their own “diagnosis” and devise their own methods of deliverance, but often suspicions of witchcraft or spirit possession are confirmed by a faith leader, usually for a substantial fee. Exorcism or deliverance can be a violent process which involves isolating, beating, burning and starving the “accused”.
Signs of abuse linked with belief include:
Uncharacteristic poor attendance.
Withdrawal from school.
Physical injury or signs of emotional or physical trauma.
Neglect or hunger.
Seclusion, self-inflicted or forced.
A total of 130 injuries were found on Kristy Bamu’s body. He suffered appalling abuse and torture for three days before drowning in a bath.
Eight-year-old Victoria Climbié suffered 128 separate injuries and nowhere on her body was scar free. Thirty injuries, including a stab wound, were discovered on 10-year-old “Child B”, also accused of practising witchcraft.
These children were beaten violently, with implements. Other forms of physical abuse include burning, scalding, and rubbing of chilli pepper into the eyes and genitals.
Many accused children are starved; Victoria Climbié and Kyra Ishaq (her attackers thought her to be possessed by demons) were both malnourished. Kyra’s body was so emaciated that her body mass index could not be measured on any existing scale.
An accused child may be prevented from contact with other humans. He or she might be suddenly withdrawn from school (Kyra Ishaq was removed from school five months before her death in 2007, having a previous attendance record of 100 per cent). The child may not be allowed to sleep in the same room as siblings or might have food passed to him or her with a long implement.
Accused children can appear neglected, withdrawn and traumatised. They might not wish to participate in physical activity for fear of their injuries being noticed.
Parents or guardians might inform the child’s school that he or she is a witch, is possessed or evil.
The child may believe this too and speak of flying, casting spells and even eating human organs. The child or family may use words such as “kindoki”, “djin”, “juju” or voodoo, all of which refer to supernatural beliefs.
The role schools can play
School nurses and teachers can play a crucial role in helping to protect children and young people at risk.
Child abuse motivated by beliefs is hidden and understood to be vastly under reported. Statutory agencies tend to become aware of a crisis once abuse has escalated, by which time a child has already suffered a degree of harm.
Schools are a child’s main source of protection and in a prime position to recognise any changes in the child’s presentation, behaviour and attendance that may indicate abuse.
Research published in 2006 by the Department for Education (DfE), identified 36 cases over the period of 2000 to 2005 with a named referring agency. Of these, 21 were identified by schools.
Belief in the supernatural does not, by itself, lead to harmful practices. It is important that professionals do not make assumptions that a child is being abused just because a particular belief is held. However, as with any other case of suspected child abuse, if any indicators are apparent, professionals must not hesitate to take positive action.
The DfE publication Working Together to Safeguard Children (2010) provides guidance to professionals specifically around child abuse linked with “spirit possession” (see further information).
In 2007, the government produced good practice guidance, Safeguarding Children from Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession, which can also be accessed online.
Fears around cultural and religious sensitivity or sharing the same beliefs cannot over-ride the need to safeguard and protect.
If concerns for a child’s welfare exist, even if there is any doubt, the safest action to take is to make a referral to children’s social care or police. There might only be one opportunity to intervene and save that child from significant harm or death.
Project Violet is the Metropolitan Police Service’s response to child abuse linked with any belief. It aims to develop prevention strategies, initiatives and intelligence opportunities as well as educating and raising awareness among professionals.
DC Tina Pearce is from the Metropolitan Police Service.