Kristy Bamu’s murder highlights the dire need for culturally and religiously sensitive therapeutic services for children and families at risk
There has been shock and horror at the tragic case of Kristy Bamu, tortured to death because his attackers believed he was a “witch”. The barbaric and cruel act perpetrated against the young boy points to how witchcraft can manifest, which in this case, happened through child abuse.
Many of you will remember the tragic case of Victoria Climbie in February 2000, who was tortured and murdered by her great aunt and her boyfriend. Victoria’s death was discussed in detail, and so huge were the failings of social services, it ultimately led to a change in legislation in the form of the Children Act 2004.
As a social worker at the time, I had to read, analyse and understand what had happened to this child, who was away from her family and living in a strange country. What was subsequently discovered away from the headlines however, was that she was believed to have been possessed. I wonder now if that was too difficult a subject for people to understand or accept, given that claims of possession would divert attention away from the concrete failures that had taken place. Instead, the subtext was largely subsumed by explanations of the violent behaviour through stereotyped cultural associations. It didn’t mean that the abuse was any less, but it did represent a failure to acknowledge that certain people in society held strong convictions concerning witchcraft. During my training and consultancy across the country, I often hear people tell me that ‘these sort of things don’t happen here’ – but surely if you do not know what to look out for, you cannot know if it takes place.
Many writers who commented on Kristy Bamu’s case became very defensive, perhaps feeling that their cultural or religious beliefs were being sensationalised and marginalised. One writer proceeded to give the example of Khyra Ishaq, killed by her ‘Muslim’ mother, presumably trying to demonstrate that these ‘Muslims’ do it too. Khyra’s mother was her parent, Muslim or not, she did not protect her child. That is all that matters.
In certain, rare instances, people resort to other beliefs when there is no explanation for their child’s behaviour. Withdrawn children do not communicate with their parents, and the local doctor excludes hearing impairments and development delay. However, the parents hear their child talking and laughing when she is alone, and have received inadequate support and guidance from the health and social care authorities to appropriately manage the issue. Without knowing where to turn to for help, these parents turn elsewhere. A spiritual healer then implicates a supernatural being that is deemed to play with the child, and demand her exclusive attention.
We live in a society where people have different beliefs, and they should not feel that a belief which is very different from our own is necessarily a detrimental thing. It can act as an avenue for understanding their lives. I do not condone the practice of witchcraft, but if a family believes it is the best option, this issue needs to be tackled through culturally relevant pathways where both mental health services and cultural practices can be discussed in an open and honest way. This will prevent a situation where a family spends extortionate amounts of money, or most tragically, the child is harmed in the process, both psychologically and physically.
The Marlborough Cultural Therapy Centre (MCTC) is an example of such a pioneering project, responding to research that demonstrated the low uptake of therapeutic services by minority ethnic groups. As a nationally and internationally integrated service, it sets a paradigm in providing culturally and religiously sensitive services, in clients’ preferred languages.
Although I am no longer involved in the service, when I read about Kristy Bamu I wondered if services like the MCTC were available for other communities; those areas where there is genuine concern about children and their families. Without such vitally needed support and guidance, the most vulnerable will remain exploited by charlatans, with potentially devastating consequences.
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