Child Abuse

Table of Contents

What is child abuse?

Child abuse is when anyone under the age of 18 is either being harmed or not properly looked after. There are four main categories of child abuse: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. Find out more about each below, as well as the warning signs that a child may be being abused.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is when someone hurts a child or young person on purpose.

Examples of physical abuse are:

  • hitting, slapping, shaking or throwing
  • burning or scalding
  • drowning, suffocating or choking
  • pushing or kicking
  • inappropriate restraint or false imprisonment
  • using physical force to discipline
  • misusing medication
  • fabricating or inducing an illness or ill health

Signs and symptoms of physical abuse in children can include:

  • unexplained recurrent injuries, marks or burns
  • covering injuries with clothing even in hot weather
  • fear of physical contact and shrinking back if touched

The above are just a few examples.

children - safeguarding

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is when a child is enticed or forced to take part in sexual activities. This kind of abuse does not always involve a high level of violence and the child may or may not be aware of what is happening.

The abuse may be committed by adult men and women, or by other children. 

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Examples of sexual abuse are:

  • causing or inciting a child to watch or engage in sexual activities
  • encouraging a child to behave in sexually inappropriate ways
  • involving a child in looking at sexual images or videos
  • involving a child in the production of sexual images or videos
  • grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet)

Signs and symptoms of sexual abuse in children can include:

  • extreme reactions such as depression, self-mutilation, suicide attempts, running away, overdoses or anorexia
  • personality changes such as becoming insecure or clinging
  • being isolated or withdrawn
  • medical problems such as chronic itching, pain in the genitals, or venereal diseases


The above are just a few examples. Another form of sexual abuse is child sexual exploitation.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse happens in many different ways.  It can affect how a young person or child feels about themselves, or how they fit in with friends, at school, or where they live.

Examples of emotional abuse are:

  • being made to feel inadequate, worthless or unloved
  • being unfairly blamed
  • being bullied, including over the internet (cyber-bullying)
  • being made to feel frightened or in danger witnessing the abuse of others such as domestic abuse

Signs and symptoms of emotional abuse in children can include:

  • reduced physical, mental and emotional development
  • continual self-depreciation, eg ‘I’m stupid’, ‘I’m ugly’, ‘I’m worthless’
  • inappropriate response to pain, eg ‘I deserve this’
  • neurotic behaviour, eg rocking, hair twisting, or self-mutilation
Children Violence


Neglect is when a child or young person’s basic needs are persistently not being met by their parent or guardian.

These basic needs include:

  • adequate food, clothing and shelter
  • protection from physical and emotional harm or danger
  • adequate supervision (including not being left at home alone)
  • access to appropriate medical care including dental treatment

Signs and symptoms of neglect in children can include:

  • constant hunger or tiredness
  • poor personal hygiene
  • poor condition and cleanliness of clothing
  • untreated medical problems
  • no social relationships


The above are just a few examples. 

If you suspect a child is suffering from abuse, even if you’re not sure, please tell someone. Find out the different ways you can get in touch on the police  How to report possible child abuse page.

How to report possible child abuse

If you are a victim of child abuse or worried for the safety or wellbeing of a child, find out below all the different ways you can get in touch with the police. Even if you’re not 100 percent sure, please report your concerns. Your information could help the trained officers and staff protect the child.

The best ways to get in touch

If you suspect someone is in immediate danger, call 999 now. If you have a hearing or speech impairment, use their textphone service 18000 or text us on 999 if you’ve pre-registered with the emergencySMS service.

If it isn’t an emergency, please get in touch in any of these other ways:

  • call their non-emergency, 24/7 number: 101. If you have a hearing or speech impairment, use their textphone service on 18001 101
  • visit a police station to speak to an officer in person
  • contact the NSPCC to speak to a professional practitioner
  • contact the children’s social care team at your local council
  • contact Crimestoppers confidentially and anonymously

If you’re a child, you could also speak to someone you trust, like a friend, a teacher, or another adult.

If you’re a professional working with children, remember you have a responsibility to refer your concerns to Children’s Social Care through your local council.

What happens after you report it to police?

Uniformed officers may take an initial report, after which specialist detectives may investigate. They’ll explain in detail what will happen next.

Neither you nor the child will be forced to do anything you’re not comfortable with. However, the police will always take action if they think a child is at risk of further harm.

Child abuse linked to faith or belief

Abuse linked to faith or belief is where concerns for a child’s welfare have been identified, and could be caused by, a belief in witchcraft, spirit or demonic possession, ritual or satanic abuse features; or when practices linked to faith or belief are harmful to a child.

Any abuse that takes place against those who are branded (or labelled) either as a witch or as having been possessed by an evil spirit is unacceptable. Significant harm (including murder) can occur because of concerted efforts to ‘excise’ or ‘deliver’ evil from a child (or vulnerable adult).

From the police own experience and in consultation with communities, they  know this kind of abuse is under-reported.

Spotting the signs that this abuse exists can prevent escalation from ‘subtle’ harms that may often go unnoticed by many, to ‘extreme’ situations where there is loss of life. Witchcraft beliefs are used to blame a person (rather than circumstances) for the misfortune that happens in life.

It can take place for some of the following reasons

  • abuse as a result of a child being accused of being a ‘witch’
  • abuse as a result of a child being accused of being possessed by ‘evil spirits’
  • ritualistic abuse which is prolonged sexual, physical and psychological abuse
  • satanic abuse which is carried out in the name of ‘satan’ and may have links to cults
  • any other harmful practice linked to a belief or faith
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Categories of Abuse linked to Faith or Belief

The forms of abuse that can occur fall into the four main categories below.

Physical abuse

This can involve ritualistic beating, burning, cutting, stabbing, semi-strangulating, tying up the child, or rubbing chilli peppers or other substances on the child’s genitals or eyes.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse can occur in the form of isolation. A child may not be allowed near or to share a room with family members, and threatened with abandonment. The child may also be convinced that they are possessed.


In situations of neglect, the child’s family and community may have failed to ensure appropriate medical care, supervision, education, good hygiene, nourishment, clothing or warmth.

Sexual abuse

Children who have been singled out in this way can be particularly vulnerable to sexual abusers within the family, community or faith organisation. These people exploit the belief as a form of control or threat.

Where does Child Abuse linked to Belief and Faith happen?

Child abuse linked to faith or belief is not confined to one faith, nationality, or ethnic community. Examples have been recorded worldwide across various religions including Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. The number of known cases suggests that only a small minority of people who believe in witchcraft or spirit possession go on to abuse children and adults. Abuse may happen anywhere, but it most commonly occurs within the child’s home.

Common factors and causes

A range of factors can contribute to the abuse of a child for reasons of faith or belief. Some of the most common ones are below.

Belief in evil spirits

Belief in evil spirits that can ‘possess’ children is often accompanied by a belief that a possessed child can ‘infect’ others with the condition. This could be through contact with shared food, or simply being in the presence of the child.


A child could be singled out as the cause of misfortune within the home, such as financial difficulties, divorce, infidelity, illness or death.

Bad behaviour

Sometimes bad or abnormal behaviour is attributed to spiritual forces. Examples include a child being disobedient, rebellious, overly independent, wetting the bed, having nightmares, or falling ill.

Physical and emotional differences

A child could be singled out for having a physical difference or disability. Documented cases included children with learning disabilities, mental health issues, epilepsy, autism, stammers, deafness, and LGBTQ+.

Gifts and uncommon characteristics

If a child has a particular skill or talent, this can sometimes be rationalised as the result of possession or witchcraft. This can also be the case if the child is from a multiple or difficult pregnancy.

Complex family structure

Research suggests that a child living with extended family, non-biological parents, or foster parents is more at risk. In these situations, they are more likely to have been subject to trafficking and made to work in servitude.

What to look out for: Indicators of child abuse linked to faith or belief

  • physical injuries, such as bruises or burns (including historical injuries/scaring)
  • a child reporting that they are or have been accused of being ‘evil’, and/or that they are having the ‘devil beaten out of them’
  • the child or family may use words such as ‘kindoki’, ‘djin’, ‘juju’ or ‘voodoo’ – all of which refer to spiritual beliefs
  • a child becoming noticeably confused, withdrawn, disorientated or isolated and appearing alone amongst other children
  • a child’s personal care deteriorating (eg rapid loss of weight, being hungry, turning up to school without food or lunch money, being unkempt with dirty clothes)
  • it may be evident that the child’s parent or carer does not have a close bond with the child
  • a child’s attendance at school or college becomes irregular or there is a deterioration in a child’s performance
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  • a child is taken out of a school altogether without another school place having been arranged
  • Wearing unusual jewllery/items or in possession of strange ornaments/scripts.

Project Violet and how to report belief or faith-based abuse

There are a number of laws in the UK that allow the prosecution of those responsible for abuse linked to faith or belief. One of the biggest challenges is raising awareness and encouraging victims and witnesses to come forward. Project Violet is the MPS response to these challenges. The police work with professionals, communities, and faith leaders to develop prevention strategies and initiatives that can help educate and raise awareness of faith and belief-based abuse. Their team is available to provide advice, support, and guidance for referrals and investigations.

If you suspect child abuse is taking place, please get in touch. Visit How to report possible child abuse page to find out more.

Useful links

AFRUCA: Africans Unite Against Child Abuse 
A UK charity advocating the rights and welfare of African children.

Barnardo’s National FGM Centre
This provides a comprehensive overview of CALFB. It covers what CALFB is, health implications, justifications for it, the law and signs that a child could be at risk

Child trafficking Advice Centre (CTAC)
A team that provides advice for professionals responsible for safeguarding children from trafficking.

An independent Christian charity which helps individuals, organisations, charities, faith and community groups to protect vulnerable people from abuse.

Phone: 0207 735 8941

VCF: The Victoria Climbié Foundation
An organisation campaigning to improve child protection policies and practices.

The Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network
WHRIN’s work enables greater understanding and awareness of these complex issues so that solutions can be developed to prevent further violations of human rights from taking place

Useful Publications

National Schools Safeguarding Guidance (developed by Metropolitan Police Service)
The Guidance for Schools and Colleges: Safeguarding Children from Sexual Violence, CSE and Harmful Practices has a chapter on CALFB.

Schools Charter on Ending Harmful Practices
This Schools Charter encourages the delivery of high quality, safeguarding focused inputs on harmful practices.

UK Government: National Action Plan to Tackle Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief

Online child abuse

Children can become victims of abuse on the internet through online games, social networking sites, and apps such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, which they can access through devices including tablets, mobile phones, and games consoles.

To help protect children while they're online, follow these steps:

  • encourage them to talk to you about how they use the internet and show you what they do – make sure they know they can come to you for advice
  • have an agreement in place and set boundaries for their internet use, such as when and where they can use their devices and for how long
  • check age ratings that come with games, apps, films and social networks to confirm whether they’re suitable
  • activate parental controls on your home network and all devices including mobile phones and game consoles
  • safe settings can also be activated on sites such as Google, YouTube and iPlayer
  • get to grips with the blocking and report functions on any gaming sites and make sure they know how to use them too
  • make sure they’re aware of the risks of sharing images online and that you both know how to remove the content should you need to


You can also find advice about things like setting parental controls or advising your child on good password practice at Get Safe Online.

Sexual images of children and 'sexting'

It’s illegal for anyone to have, share or make sexual images or videos of people under 18.

Legally this includes personal images or videos made by under 18s and shared with each other (sometimes called ‘sexting’).

But it’s not always in the public interest to prosecute in these cases. The police will decide whether to take action depending on things like evidence of exploitation or grooming.

Child Sexual Exploitation

Child sexual exploitation involves situations, contexts or relationships in which a person under 18 is given something, such as food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts or money in return for performing sexual activities or having sexual activities performed on them. It can also involve violence, coercion and intimidation, with threats of physical harm or humiliation.

Warning signs

Signs of a child or young person being in an exploitative relationship can vary. Some examples are:

  • going missing from home or care
  • physical injuries
  • misuse of drugs or alcohol
  • involvement in offending
  • repeat sexually-transmitted infections, pregnancies or terminations
  • absenteeism from school
  • deterioration in physical appearance
  • evidence of online sexual bullying
  • evidence of vulnerability on social networking sites
  • emotional distance from family members
  • receiving gifts from unknown sources
  • recruiting others into exploitative situations
  • poor mental health
  • self-harming
  • thinking about or attempting suicide

Useful Links

The charities, groups and organisations below can provide information and support.

Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre
The national police agency for tackling offenders who use the internet to groom and abuse children.

A website run by CEOP (see above) for people of all ages, providing easy-to-understand advice and ways to get in touch.

Get Safe Online
Free and impartial security advice on how to stay safe online and protect your internet-connected devices.

Common patterns

In all cases of child sexual exploitation (CSE), the person exploiting the child or young person is able to create the impression of authority over them in some form.

This could be because of their age, gender, intellect, physical strength or economic situation.

Sexual exploitation of children can start through the use of technology, without them immediately realising. For example, they might be persuaded to post images on the internet or via mobile phone without immediate payment or personal gain.

Violence, coercion and intimidation are common, with a particular vulnerability of the child or young person being used against them. This can make the young person feel as though they have no choice but to continue the relationship.

If you suspect a person of carrying out child sexual exploitation or think someone you know has been a victim, or maybe soon, visit the Police  How to report possible child abuse page or call their non-emergency number, 101. If you have a hearing or speech impairment, use their textphone service on 18001 101.

What the police are doing about child sexual exploitation

The London Child Sexual Exploitation Operating Protocol sets out how agencies, including the Met, identify and address child sexual exploitation providing a standard and consistent response across London.

The Police have produced the following video to help professionals recognise the techniques perpetrators use to attract and then exploit their victims. If someone is in immediate danger of harm, please call 999 now. If you have a hearing or speech impairment, use their textphone service 18000 or text us on 999 if you’ve pre-registered with the emergencySMS service.

Useful links

Operation Makesafe
A Met campaign helping to raise awareness of child sexual exploitation in the business community.

A national charity helping children in poverty, supporting young carers and helping families looking to foster or adopt.

National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC)
A national children’s charity, preventing abuse and helping those affected to recover.

Safer London
A London charity specialising in supporting young people through violence and exploitation.

Parents Against Child Exploitation (PACE)
The leading national charity working with parents and carers of sexually exploited children.

A UK organisation campaigning against child trafficking and exploitation.

Advice for parents, guardians and professionals

Finding out that your child, or a child in your care, has witnessed or been the victim of child abuse can be incredibly difficult. The first priority is to make sure that the child and any others affected are safe. The second is to ensure that the threat or danger to them is removed. The police aim to do both. Find out below how to talk to your child, or children in your care, about possible abuse and who you can contact for help and support.

Noticing the Problem

A child may not understand that they are being abused. For some, the complex dynamics of abuse mean they develop an attachment to the person harming them.

This can make identifying the abuse difficult and result in the victim playing down or even denying the abuse.

Visit the police  What is child abuse? page to learn more about the four main types of abuse and the common symptoms and behaviours associated with each.

If a child tells you something that worries you

If a child has witnessed or been the victim of abuse they may have struggled for some time before deciding to talk to you, and are likely worried about how you will react. So if they choose to confide in you:

  • listen and don’t interrupt
  • try not to appear shocked or surprised: seeing you upset may make them stop talking
  • make a written note of what they have said as soon as possible
  • report possible child abuse to the police, social care, NSPCC, or Crimestoppers

What happens after you report it?

Uniformed officers may take an initial report, after which specialist detectives may investigate. They will explain in detail what will happen next. Neither you nor the child will be forced to do anything you are not comfortable with. However, we will always take action if we think a child is at risk of further harm.

Sarah's Law (Child Sexual Offender Disclosure Scheme)

If you are worried about someone’s behaviour towards a child, or something you’ve seen, heard, or been told, you can use Sarah’s Law to find out if that person is a risk.

Advice for carers and professionals

Where you have cause for concern about something a child has told you, it’s important to reassure the child but not promise confidentiality. Ultimately, police and other professionals may have to intervene in order to keep that child, and other children, safe and prevent further harm.

Record in writing all of your concerns, discussions about the child, decisions, and the reasons for those decisions.

An allegation of child abuse or neglect may lead to a criminal investigation, so it’s vital that you don’t do anything that may jeopardise that, such as asking leading questions or attempting to investigate allegations yourself.

However, it is important to establish the basic facts in order for police or Children’s Social Care to be able to make an assessment of the risks posed to that child.

Speak with your safeguarding lead for support and advice.

Advice for children

If you or someone you know is experiencing child abuse, please get in touch. You can use any of the ways listed below. We know taking this first step can be difficult. You might not know exactly what is wrong, or could be embarrassed about something that has happened. Just remember that we’re here to listen and make sure you and any other children are safe.

If you suspect someone is in immediate danger, call 999 now. If you have a hearing or speech impairment, use textphone service 18000 or text on 999 if you’ve pre-registered with the emergencySMS service.

If it isn’t an emergency, please get in touch in any of these other ways:

  • call the  non-emergency, 24/7 number: 101. If you have a hearing or speech impairment, use the textphone service on 18001 101.
  • visit a police station to speak to an officer in person
  • contact the NSPCC to speak to a professional practitioner
  • contact Children’s Social Care through your local council and ask for the duty social worker
  • contact Crimestoppers confidentially and anonymously
  • talk to someone you trust, like a friend, a teacher, or another adult


Remember, whatever has happened is not your fault, even though you might have been told it is.

Children are often made to feel they are at fault, or that no one will believe them, or that something bad will happen to them or their family, but this is a threat to stop them from telling anyone. You are not to blame.

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What happens after you get in touch

The police work with social workers who will support you, and we have specially trained plain-clothes officers who will listen to what you have to say. They will explain what happens at each step and make sure you know what’s going on. They  won’t make you do anything you don’t want to but they want to make sure you and any other children involved are safe. If you decide not to tell your parents they can provide details of people and agencies who can support you. The police will always take your feelings into consideration. The police work hard to protect children and ensure they are safe and live happy and healthy lives. they want to stop anyone from hurting them or putting them at risk.

How to help a friend or family member if they tell you they've been abused

Your friend or family member might be scared or hurt. Listen carefully to what they say to you and try and persuade them to tell an adult they trust – perhaps their parents, a relative, a family friend or a teacher. They might want you to go with them to tell this person. If they do not want to tell anyone, you should tell an adult you trust who is not involved in what happened. They can help decide what to do.