A Child Called It | Study Guide

Dave Pelzer

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A Child Called It | Context


Child Abuse in the United States

Dave Pelzer's abuse was unusual in its severity and in his being singled out as a target among his siblings. However, his experience is far from being rare. A 2016 report by the Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found an estimated 676,000 victims of abuse and neglect that year. The number included 1,750 fatalities.

Child abuse is defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as:

  • "Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation"; or
  • "An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm."

Child abuse thus includes physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, as well as various forms of neglect. In comparison to other industrialized nations, the United States has a poor track record when it comes to protecting its children from mistreatment. In the United States, children under age three are at greatest risk for abuse.

Alcohol as a Risk Factor

Recent studies have identified general characteristics of caregivers that are risk factors increasing the likelihood of child maltreatment. The top four characteristics are compulsive alcohol consumption that is habitual; compulsive drug abuse that is not temporary; financial problems, including not being able to meet the needs of the family; and inadequate housing, including unsafe or overcrowded conditions or homelessness.

Drug or alcohol abuse is linked to 40-80 percent of child abuse cases, with children of substance abusers being three times more likely to experience abuse and four times more likely to experience neglect. Alcohol abuse and its role in child maltreatment also create a generational cycle: abuse suffered in childhood is linked to high-risk behaviors later in life, such as drug and alcohol abuse, as well as depression and suicide, and abused children often grow up to be abusers themselves.

Although alcohol and abuse often go hand in hand, the nature of the relationship is unclear. Alcohol is sometimes assumed to be a cause of violence within the home. However, this belief is being challenged, with some experts proposing that alcohol may be the effect. Instead of causing the violence, alcohol is a means of dealing with the violent actions. Further, abusers may already be prone to violent behavior patterns whether alcohol is consumed or not. Studies show that the majority of men who are "high-level" drinkers are not violent to their partners. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines low-risk drinking for men as having no more than four drinks on any given day and no more than 14 drinks within a week's time.

In Dave Pelzer's home, alcohol seemed to work in both ways—as a cause and an effect. It appears to have fueled the arguments between the husband and wife and increased the intensity of the mother's abusiveness. However, initially, the father attempted to use alcohol to put his wife in a better mood. Later, he used alcohol to escape the conflict and avoid his responsibilities.

Mental Illness as a Risk Factor

A considerable proportion of the U.S. population suffers from mental illness, but many cases go unreported and untreated. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, tens of millions of people are affected by mental illness each year, and it is estimated that only half will receive treatment. Mental illness takes many forms, including severe anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and antisocial behaviors. Studies taken over decades—since numbers fluctuate in any given year—show that generally 18% of adults suffer from anxiety disorders, 7% from major depression, 3% from bipolar disorder, and 1% from schizophrenia. Children of mentally ill mothers are between two and six times more likely to be abused than children of healthy mothers. A mother's mental illness can result in child mistreatment ranging from lack of warmth and responsiveness to hostile control and extreme physical punishment. Children of mothers with serious mental illnesses are nearly three times more likely to be placed in foster care.

Dave Pelzer's mother shows signs of mental illness early in his childhood. She withdraws from her children, spending her days watching television and exhibiting extreme behaviors, such as cleaning compulsively and preparing overly elaborate dinners. She also exhibits occasional irrational behavior, like frantically painting the steps red and then replacing the treads before the paint dries. As she becomes increasingly abusive toward Pelzer, the rest of the family does what many families of the mentally ill do: they keep her secrets. Each member of the family endeavors to protect her and themselves from the embarrassment of her behavior, and, as such, become enablers, allowing the illness to continue unchecked. The bizarre behaviors caused by the mother's mental illness, left untreated, become the family's norm. The situation can become highly stressful as the family is constantly on alert regarding the mentally ill person. As a result, family members feel as if they are walking on eggshells, trying not to create conflict with the mentally ill person. Ultimately, the untreated mentally ill person may control each family member by manipulating them in various ways, much as the mother controlled Pelzer's father and siblings.

Role of Schools and Mandatory Reporting Laws

Because school personnel spend time with children for extended periods, they are uniquely situated to help identify children who are victims of abuse and neglect. Some warning signs of possible child abuse include a sudden change in a child's behavior, recurring physical injuries, an inability to concentrate, jumpiness, poor hygiene, and inappropriate clothing. Teachers and other school personnel are obligated to report suspicions of neglect or abuse. The report is not an accusation, but a request for an inquiry.

Dave Pelzer wore the signs of abuse openly. He was covered with bruises, poorly clothed, and undernourished. Others suspected what was happening to him at home. School personnel in Dave Pelzer's school documented injuries and seemed to suspect abuse for many years, but they failed to act. When they did act, as in the case of the principal calling home, the situation was simply made worse. Today, school personnel are considered mandatory reporters. In other words, they are required by law to report suspicions of abuse and neglect to child protective agencies.

In 1962, when Pelzer was a little over a year old, the American Medical Association identified symptoms of child abuse and declared abuse "medically diagnosable." By the time Pelzer was finally removed from his home in 1973, every state had mandatory reporting laws. Mandatory reporting laws require that those who come into contact with children professionally, such as doctors, nurses, social workers, police officers, counselors, teachers, and other school personnel, must report suspected cases of abuse to the appropriate agencies. In 1974 the federal government became involved, passing the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). This legislation funded educational programs to help identify abuse cases and to provide services for victims.

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