Reporting on witchcraft and child abuse in UK inconsistent with data

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TWH – Last week, The Guardian ran an article with the headline, “Witchcraft and black magic contribute to increase in child abuse.” That headline was mimicked by other media outlets including The Independent, Newsweek, and The Telegraph. The headline also raised concerns within the Pagan community across the world from the U.K. to the U.S. to Australia.

Despite the headlines and the claim of “witchcraft” and “black magic”, the UK report says nothing of the sort.

All the media outlets cited the same report by the U.K. Department of Education as interpreted by the Local Government Association, a national organization of local councils in England and Wales.

The original report titled, “Characteristics of children in need: 2018 to 2019” provides graphs from data from U.K. National Statistics describing the number of children in need in the U.K. As the report reads, “This statistical publication provides the latest information on children referred to children’s social care, assessments carried out upon those children and whether a child became the subject of a child protection plan.”

The data are gathered by the Department of Education over the preceding 12-month period and they have been gathering the data since 2009.

The data specifically focuses on children who have been referred to protective and social services which “can include, for example, family support (to help keep together families experiencing difficulties), leaving care support (to help young people who have left local authority care), adoption support or disabled children’s services (including social care, education and health provision).”

The methodology is described briefly in the report and in greater detail in an adjacent report. A child in need is defined as “a child who is unlikely to reach or maintain a satisfactory level of health or development, or their health or development will be significantly impaired without the provision of services, or the child is disabled.” The report goes on to describe the time period and method of data collection.

The compiled data are presented in a series of graphs and tables describing the current situation and previous findings.

Nowhere in the Characteristics of Children in Need Report is the word “Witchcraft”.

The report – which covers an exceptionally serious topic – does state, “There was an increase of 30% in the number of factors identified as “unaccompanied asylum seeker” compared to last year and similarly large percentage increases for gangs (up 27%), trafficking and abuse linked to faith or belief (both up 20%). These percentage increases are relatively large, but it should be noted that they are from a low base compared to some other factors, and they remain uncommon overall.”

The attention to “witchcraft” and “black magic” appears to originate with the Local Government Association (LGA), a group whose mission is to provide a national voice for local councils, that released an article of the Department of Education report.  The article, published on November 14, 2019, begins with the statement that “Councils are determined to tackle the practice of FGM and work with partner organisations to do everything possible to protect and support children and young people.” FGM refers to female genital mutilation which has been reported in some faith-based communities and cultures.

In the context of the sobering topic of FGM, the LGA article zeros in on the previous statement about faith and on the one specific graph of the Department of Education report regarding source factors associated with the abuse.  The graphic shown above notes that “Abuse linked to faith or belief” precedes “Female Genital Mutilation” and “Other Factors” as one of the factors of abuse experienced by the surveyed children.

For reference, Domestic Abuse, Mental Health, Emotional Abuse, and Drug and Alcohol misuse are the leading causes of abuse.

The article states “Abuse of children based on faith or belief – which includes witchcraft, spirit possession and black magic – increased from 1,460 to 1,950 cases between 2016/17 and 2018/19, a rise of 34 per cent, with councils dealing with the equivalent of 38 such cases a week.”

Fortunately, raw data tables are available from the Children in Need report.  The data do, indeed show the alarming findings that 1,950 children – about 0.4% of the sample – experienced “Abuse linked to faith or belief” including the reported increases. But, neither the data tables nor the methodology documents appear to adequately define “Abuse linked to faith or belief”.

However, the UK National Action Plan to Tackle Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief which remains active since 2012 does provide definitions. It offers a substantially more comprehensive understanding of how “Abuse linked to faith or belief” is defined:

This includes: belief in concepts of witchcraft and spirit possession, demons or the devil acting through children or leading them astray (traditionally seen in some Christian beliefs), the evil eye or djinns (traditionally known in some Islamic faith contexts) and dakini (in the Hindu context); ritual or muti murders where the killing of children is believed to bring supernatural benefits or the use of their body parts is believed to produce potent magical remedies; and use of belief in magic or witchcraft to create fear in children to make them more compliant when they are being trafficked for domestic slavery or sexual exploitation. This is not an exhaustive list and there will be other examples where children have been harmed when adults think that their actions have brought bad fortune, such as telephoning a wrong number which is believed by some to allow malevolent spirits to enter the home.

What is particularly regrettable is that the sensational focus on “witchcraft” and “spirit possession” distances readers from faith-based abuses originating in majority faiths while implying a connection to Pagan spirituality. Equally troubling is that other reprehensible practices like female genital mutilation, are described in the context of “witchcraft, spirit possession and black magic” which again distracts from the reality that the practice has specific origins, as both UNICEF and the World Health Organization note, predominantly outside the contemporary Pagan community.