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Help sought for black churches over ‘witch’ cases

18 April 2012

by Madeleine Davies

BLACK and minority-ethnic (BME) faith communities need help to overcome mistrust of statutory authorities who have a duty to safeguard children, social workers heard on Monday.

Addressing the National Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect, convened by the British Association for the Study and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (BASPCAN), the safeguarding and policy adviser at the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS), Claudia Bell, discussed how professionals should engage with faith communities where particular beliefs, such as witchcraft and possession, cause emotional trauma and physical harm to children.

Faith communities need training and support to understand what effective safeguarding is, she concluded, and statutory agencies need to understand faith communities better.

CCPAS has developed links with African and BME churches in recent years, in a project that has trained more than 4000 African church leaders and workers in safeguarding. An evaluation by the Centre for Social Work Research concluded that the training had been effective “in beginning to address that lack of knowledge of child-protection principles and practice among African faith-leaders in London.”

Concern about accusations of witchcraft and possession within BME communities was heightened this year by the case of Kristy Bamu, aged 15, who was murdered by his sister and her partner after they accused him of witchcraft (News, 9 March). In the wake of the trial, there were calls for the Government to make accusations of witchcraft illegal, an approach that CCPAS continues to advise against.

Speaking on Tuesday, Mrs Bell said that such a law would be “unworkable” in practice, and highlighted the finding by the Centre for Social Work Research that using the existing child-protection framework — which defines abuse as physical, emotional, sexual, or neglect — is effective when assessing cases where children have been subject to such accusations.

“If a child is being harmed in any way, whether it be faith-based or not, one of those elements is going to be prevalent as well,” Mrs Bell said. “We deliver our core training to address abuse in a broader context. If there is a narrow focus on the issue of witchcraft and spirit possession, that leads to them feeling victimised, and isolates them further. When you address it in a broader sense, people can make those links.”

The evaluation also found that faith leaders had a “pivotal” part to play in developing children’s rights within African communities. Mrs Bell believes that the source of change can often be found within faith communities themselves, if they can be helped to understand the motivation of those “outside” who wish to help them.

“Distrust is there for all sorts of reasons,” she said. “Media coverage doesn’t help that, and can quite often make communities feel vic­tim­ised. There are also language barriers, and the fear that a statu­tory authority may come in, turn the community upside down, and leave again. We need sustained, long-term relationships.”

In the wake of the Bamu case, the secretary for minority-ethnic Chris­tian affairs at Churches Together in England, Bishop Joe Aldred, told the BBC TV pro­gramme Newsnight that the challenge was “how we reach those who are operating largely on the boundaries of Christianity, and behaving in ways which are dangerous to children”.

On Tuesday, Mrs Bell said that while “we don’t know what we don’t know — we need to be realistic,” she was hopeful that bridges were being built to communities. CCPAS were well-known, she said, and when churches registered with the Charity Commission they would often get in contact. Once it was made aware of a church’s existence, CCPAS would “make every effort” to contact it.

To address social workers at BASCPAN was, she believed, a “real opportunity” to “address this widespread difficulty, and empower statutory authorities to engage with churches”.

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