A Child Called “It”: One Child’s Courage to Survive, by Dave Pelzer, is a harrowing story of a young boy who is cruelly physically, emotionally, and psychologically abused by his mentally ill, alcoholic mother in the 1960’s. As a tool towards understanding the human service professions, it is useful primarily in noticing the strides that these professions have made over the decades between the time that the story was based and the present time. In the 1960’s, children’s services were almost nonexistent, and social workers charged with the welfare of children rarely if ever took the word of a child who claimed he was being abused over the word of that child’s parents, who naturally denied these accusations. School personnel, who today have a sworn duty to report any suspicions of child abuse to the authorities, had little authority in earlier years; they faced losing their jobs if they made allegations of abuse which could not be proven. Reading this story truly helps a person who hopes to work in the human services feel grateful for how far we have come in protecting children and their rights as human beings.

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Dave Pelzer lived in a normal, happy, seemingly well-adjusted family until the year he entered the first grade. Almost overnight, his previously loving mother turned into an abusive monster whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to shame, degrade, starve, and eventually kill Dave. One of a family of eventually five boys, Dave was the only child singled out for punishment by his mother, who suffered from some type of mental illness and alcoholism. Dave’s mother began by striking Dave for imagined crimes, and quickly escalated the abuse to systematic starvation, attempted poisonings, a stabbing, and completely alienating Dave from the other family members.

Dave’s story is one primarily of failure; the failure of the people around him to save him from an obviously mentally unbalanced mother, a helpless and ineffectual father, and brothers who were both too young to be of any help to Dave, and who also were brainwashed to believe that he deserved the abuse that he was receiving. Dave was also failed by the school system, who suspected, at the very least, that Dave was being mistreated in his household, but did little to help him. The school nurse documented Dave’s injuries every time he arrived at school with a fresh bruise or cut; his teachers noticed that he attended school every day in the same filthy, stinking clothes, and the principal talked to Dave’s mother on at least two occasions when Dave was caught stealing food from the other students’ lunchboxes or from the cafeteria. Despite the fact that Dave had broken down and admitted to the abuse he was suffering at the hands of his mother, it took over four years for school personnel to take any steps to have Dave removed from his abusive household (Pelzer, Chapter 1).

In order to understand how such an atrocity could occur with the full knowledge of so many people who should have been charged with protecting a child’s welfare, it is necessary to understand that the social service climate was very different during the time when this incident occurred than it is today. Social workers were hesitant to make any accusations or take any action to remove a child from his natural parents, or to have an abusive parent arrested for child abuse. Abuse, itself, was looked at very differently during that time. While today, parents risk having a child removed from their care if they so much as swat him on the buttocks, during the 1960’s, issues of punishment were left very much up to the parents. It was not considered the business or responsibility of the state, schools, social workers, or the police to monitor how parents chose to punish their children. Short of obvious abuse that resulted in severe, life-threatening injury, most forms of parental punishment were seen as being the parents’ prerogative and right. Most people, even those who meant well, would be hesitant to “butt in” to a situation which they felt was a family affair, and therefore none of their business.

Helping to reinforce this reluctance to intervene on a child’s behalf was the fact that when it was reported to parents that an abused child had told the truth about how they were being injured, the abusive parent inevitably responded by punishing and abusing the child even more severely in retribution. Knowing the probability that this would be the only result of trying to intervene in an abusive situation, along with the slim chance that any official action would be taken to punish the parents or protect the child, most people felt it was safer simply to keep their mouths shut.

Pelzer’s book begins with the end of his abuse at the hands of his mother. Having documented one too many injuries, and being told by Dave that this injury had been inflicted by his mother, as had his previous injuries, the school nurse finally took the matter to the school principal. With the combined testimony of the nurse, the principal, and two of Dave’s teachers, there was finally enough evidence for the police to be called (Pelzer, Chapter 1). The police were called, and Dave was removed from his family and placed into the protective care system, from whence he would eventually be placed in foster care.

While Dave Pelzer’s story is both heartbreaking and unimaginable in today’s climate which respects and works for the rights of children, it can be an invaluable tool in seeing what was wrong with the system once, and therefore how it can best improve in the present and future. By reading how Dave’s own reports of the abusive he was suffering were ignored or minimalized, we can learn the importance of listening to children who tell us they are in trouble and need help. By reading about how, time and time again, officials took Dave’s mother’s word over his and did nothing to help him or punish her, we can learn that parents are not always the most reliable sources simply because they are older. Also, they will lie to protect themselves and their family secrets.

Having read Dave Pelzer’s story makes me all the more excited about eventually working in the social services. Knowing how severely some children are abused every day, even in this country makes me determined to do everything I can to stop or prevent any abuse that I come across. I recognize that I am lucky to be learning about this work in a time where I will have the authority to actually help children in need, and have other agencies working alongside me to help remove children from dangerous situations and punish the parents who abuse them. I want to help children who might not have been helped in times past; now that I can do something, I sincerely want to do so.

  • Pelzer, D. (1993). A Child Called “It”: One Child’s Courage to Survive. Omaha, Neb: Omaha Press Publishing Company.