Teachers, social workers and other front-line staff should be trained how to spot faith-based child abuse, according to experts concerned at the rising number of children being abused by parents with skewed religious views.
Two leading female academics in the field have joined forces with the Victoria Climbié Foundation – named after the eight-year-old Ivorian girl tortured and murdered by her guardians in 2000 – in calling for a national framework to help reduce the incidence of such cases, which are on the rise and harder to detect than other forms of abuse.
According to the Education Select Committee, an increasing number of children in the UK are being harmed in the belief that it “will get the devil out of them”.
Dr Lisa Oakley and Dr Kathryn Kinmond, from Manchester Metropolitan University, were approached by a government working group that is devising a national action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith and belief. The pair also met with the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service and safeguarding specialists Chanon Consulting as they began what will be a two-year project to identify the principal characteristics of faith-based abuse.
The academics will create a checklist for professionals who come into contact with children and establish the prevalence of spiritual abuse.
Dr Oakley, who leads the Manchester Met’s Abuse Studies degree programme, said: “There is very little academic evidence in this area – the research that is available is very dated – and we are looking to provide that. What we are finding anecdotally is that there are cases of spiritual abuse, especially linked to witchcraft and possession, but we don’t currently have the data to evidence what is happening.
“Kathryn and I want to look at what exists at the moment to identify spiritual abuse, what knowledge frontline practitioners have, and then develop a toolkit so people can identify child abuse linked to faith and belief. Then we can measure [its] prevalence in the UK.”
The call coincides with a three-month consultation that the Church of England is currently undertaking. Spiritual abuse is a new category that the CofE has included in its “best practice” guidelines.
Dr Oakley said evidence of physical abuse and a belief in evil spirits are only some of the signs that a child may be suffering spiritual abuse, and that her research aimed to go beyond these. “We need to understand more about this across the country, as we may be missing faith groups where there is child abuse linked to faith and belief because our current understanding of the issue is limited,” she said.
“We don’t know enough of what we are talking about yet to make a difference.
Mor Dioum, from the Victoria Climbié Foundation, said: “It is also important that we continue to learn, research, share and develop best practice to address child abuse linked to faith or belief, and to work together with our partners to achieve positive outcomes for children and families affected by this type of abuse.”