Professor Julie Taylor is a nurse scientist specialising in child maltreatment and has extensive research experience with vulnerable populations using a wide range of qualitative and participative methods. Her research programme is concentrated at the interface between health and social care and is largely underpinned by the discourse of cumulative harm and the exponential effects of living with multiple adversities (domestic abuse, parental mental ill health, substance misuse, disabilities, etc). Her key focus of current international work is on witchcraft related violence against children with albinism in sub-Saharan Africa. Julie was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal College of Nursing for services to child protection in 2013.

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Dr Maria Clark is the Programme Director for the multi-professional MSc in Advanced Clinical Practice and Director of Education for the University’s Children and Childhood research network. Building on her public health nursing/health visiting background, her research is focused on abuse and violence prevention in family and community-based contexts. She has co-published literature reviews and qualitative studies on the nurses’ role in identifying and responding to intimate partner violence and gender-based violence. Working with Birmingham Community Healthcare Foundation Trust/Forward Steps Birmingham, Maria co-leads an early years and health visiting ‘community of practice’ (CoP). She is most interested in the intersection between public health/nursing and multi-sector approaches to abuse prevention. Maria supervises PhD, MSc, and nursing students with congruent interests. 

Witchcraft research and child protection.

Question 1: How did you become involved in witchcraft research?

By accident really. It comes up occasionally with cases we see at a (UK) children’s hospital. For example, there have been suspected exorcisms or ritualistic looking marks on children; or a parent has claimed a child is possessed by the devil. 

In terms of research work it has only recently emerged as a feature in the analysis of interviews with people with albinism in sub-Saharan Africa. Albinism is a genetic condition resulting in a lack of melanin, which in turn causes an absence of pigmentation. Children with albinism are very pale skinned, with pale hair and eyes, but can be born to two black parents and may be the only ones in the whole community. Their markedly different appearance to everyone else has resulted in numerous myths and misbeliefs, with attributions often levelled at sorcery or demons. In some places they are viewed as ghosts who may disappear but cannot die. 

A lack of understanding in many places means that disabled children more generally, especially those experiencing mental illness or learning difficulties, may be targeted with accusations of spirit possession or witchcraft.

 

Question 2: What do you think are the main issues for child protection? 

There are many, but they all fall into the same sort of maltreatment categories with which we are familiar. 

Children can experience great psychological or emotional abuse through accusations of witchcraft; measures to rid them of perceived demons or ancestral spirits can be very physically abusive; and some rituals enforce abstinence from food or drink, or severe isolation meaning children are significantly neglected. 

As with other children who are physically abused or neglected, they can be vulnerable to multiple forms of maltreatment, including sexual abuse.

  

Question 3: How might this research* inform the practice agenda?

 *Regarding Julie’s joint research article ‘Beliefs about people with albinism in Uganda: A qualitative study using the Common-Sense Model’

We can get really hung up about whether there is such a thing as witchcraft and whether we might be culturally insensitive, even racist, if we suspect such things might be going on. And because we may have such different beliefs ourselves it is sometimes difficult to comprehend that for some people, witchcraft is an everyday part of life, even if it isn’t a central tenet of life. We seem to have no worries accepting that many people believe that blessing bread and wine can turn them into flesh and blood, but we are not always as familiar with other types of belief, and it can tie us in knots. 

At the end of the day it isn’t about what we believe, or what we think other people may believe. Research shows us that what is important is whether a child is being harmed or is at significant risk of being harmed. That is central, and we should ignore the rest.

 

Question 4: Terminology relating to witchcraft and child abuse is contentious: How do you think we should frame these complex issues for child protection?

Terminology can be a real barrier to promoting awareness and understand of the issues at hand. Predominantly witchcraft is invariably linked to spirit possession, to malevolent force used to bring about harm. But witchcraft may not be seen as evil or negative to some, it may even been seen as good or as a pagan religion (Wicca).

We’re probably not ever going to come to agreement on it, although the UN and many others are trying to come to consensus on this (follow developments at www.whrin.org).  The current terminology accepted in the UK is child abuse linked to faith or belief (with a clunky acronym: CALFB).

 

Question 5: Learning about children who have suffered terrible harm and died due to injuries sustained during witchcraft exorcisms is distressing. How can we ensure practitioner sensitivity and capability to undertake this work?

We do need to accept that CALFB is a real phenomenon and one that we will see in the UK.   Safeguarding and child protection guidance needs to include this overtly. Issues raised by potential CALFB need to be acknowledged in supervision sessions.  It would be helpful if we could raise the levels of faith literacy and cultural competence for all practitioners who work with children.

 

Conclusion

At the end of the day though all children need us to think about just three things:

  1. What does this child need me to think about?
  2. What does this child need me to feel?
  3. What does this child need me do?

We need to decouple belief from what is actually happening to a child.

 

Resources for frontline practitioners