Case Study: Child Abuse in a Called it by David Pelzer

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Intervention in Child Abuse and Its Complications

In A Child Called "It": One Child's Courage to Survive by David J. Pelzer, and his alcoholic mother are the characters as well as the foster care family. It is the opinion of this author that due to the similar nature of the new laws on the books of most states (California is usually in the vanguard in terms of many standards) to the legal system now many aspects of the intervention would have gone very similarly to the present time. However, experience, training and education have sped the process up.

The story occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s chronicling the abuse and David's journey into the foster care system on March 5, 1973. Ironically, his siblings were not abused. The story occurred in Daly City, California on the Russian river.

He remembers "good years" in the beginning of his life where he remembers feelings of warmth and safety provided by his mother. Evidently, his mother was not always abusive. As described in chapter two of the book, he describes the idyllic life of a typical "Brady Bunch" By age 4, these turned to feelings of fear, starvation and loneliness. This included verbal abuse. In addition to being horribly beaten, Dave was forced to swallow soap, ammonia, Clorox and his own vomit. He was forced to sleep in a cold basement on an army cot with no blankets. Dave is forced to do all of the chores in the house. In addition to basic child abuse, the text talks about the full spectrum of child maltreatment, including verbal abuse that happened on top of the physical and emotional ill-treatment and neglect such as being starved. This is documented as early as chapter one where David is doing his morning chores (doing the dishes) in a hurry so his mother will not withhold food from him. When she catches him with his hands out of the scalding rinse water, she hits him and he tumbles to the floor (Pelzer, 1995, 3). One of the worst documented incidents is probably where David documents his mother punishes him for scavenging for food by attempting to make eat feces from his brother's diaper (ibid, 56-57).

The effects of the abuse and maltreatment are humiliating. David was forced by his mother to wear the same unwashed, smelly, holey clothes everyday to humiliate him in front of the children in his schools (ibid, 6). In addition, David is brainwashed to cover for his mother by lying about the abuse, claiming the bruises, cuts and marks on his skin were accidents or his fault (ibid, 6-7).

The immediate cause for the mother's abuse of her son was her alcoholism. For instance on the day that her son was "rescued," she was hung over from drinking the night before (ibid, 5). Had the abuse been documented more specifically and earlier in a coordinated and documented manner, it might have been possible to alleviate much of David's suffering. Based upon the reading of chapters 10-12 of the textbook Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect, we can identify a number of interventions described and not described that could have been differently, which more or less of might have changed the events of the story, freeing David from his suffering at a much earlier date. The use of a team approach is a key component in alleviating the abuse more effectively and at an earlier date.

With the subject of team intervention in mind, we will need to begin the examination as the book started, with the active intervention by the school nurse and other professionals into Dave's life. Dave reported to school after having had his head smashed into the kitchen counter by his mother that morning for some not performing his dish washing chores quickly enough. The 12-year-old Dave was sent to the school nurse upon his arrival at school. Dave had a familiar routine. As always, he lied to the nurse about the bruise on his head, reciting the explanation his mother instructed him to. The school nurse again does not believe him and checked her file on the boy. The nurse had a thick file that included information about bruises, malnutrition cuts and the stab wound in the chest. The nurse now decided that she had had enough. She called the school principal who called the local police. In short order, young Dave Pelzer was in a police car and was take to the San Mateo Juvenile Department to safety.

The question is why it took so long to get the effective intervention necessary to rescue Dave. After all, it took three years of painstaking documentation to bring about a simple intervention and to take Dave out of the clutches of an alcoholic, abusive mother who was torturing him. Ironically, the institution that took so long to respond was the one institution that provided him with the most refuge during his mother's depravations. At least in school, he would had some moment respite, limited as it was from his mother's alcoholism. Certainly, if a child is stealing food, this should have set off alarm bells in the minds of his teachers. Also, if a child comes in day after day with the same unwashed clothing with bruises, cuts and other injuries, it does seem amazing that the alarm bells did were not set off earlier. However, it is clear that it took three years of painstaking documentation to break Dave out of his prison. This rescue that Dave had waited for could have cost his teachers dearly. They placed their careers in grave risk by stepping in to help. Certainly, it was legally difficult to intervene, especially when his alcoholic father took no action and was involved in child neglect because he allowed this to continue happening to his son.

Our textbook reflects today's standards and morals. It is unfair and illogical to judge the police, school administrators, social workers and other people who did not have as much experience and knowledge as is now available with regard to child neglect and maltreatment. Certainly, things have changed greatly since the late 1960s and early 1970s and it is now easier to intervene. Even now, the system is geared to protect and nurture the traditional nuclear family and it is difficult to eject a child from a dangerous home situation, even with a tremendous amount of documentation. Besides, child abuse cases are so numerous that the people in the team of intervention are overwhelmed by the caseloads.

For instance, in chapter 10 of the textbook, the lengthy documentation process that exists even at present is extensively documented. For instance, there is an extensive process prior to intervention that includes reporting, investigating and validating the reports and then home visitations to check things out in person (Crosson-Tower, 2010, 223-227). In addition, there is an entire group of other professionals involved who are not direct members of the immediate team, including a medical team, a legal team, mental health professionals, community representatives and sometimes clergy and church staff. It is a tremendous task to coordinate them into a totally coordinated and cohesive team (ibid, 250-265).

On top of this are the legal battles. The abused child is not taken easily by the legal system. The parents as well as the children have legal rights and the courts find themselves pitted in a double bind as they must sort out the conflicting rights and responsibilities. To make things even more complicated, different sectors of the legal system have jurisdictions, many of which conflict with each other and bureaucratic turf battles can occur between, local, county and state officials, including the juvenile and criminal court systems. Things do not even here. In addition, the fourth estate, the press becomes involved as well (ibid, 270-286).

Now, as we take ourselves back more than three decades to a time where there was much less intervention than there is today, we can appreciate the great risks that those who intervened on behalf of David took. Even now, whistleblowers (after all, this is what an intervener is at a base level) are not treated well. A commonsensical analysis of the motivations and detractions confronting the potential interventionists, one can appreciate that the negatives must have outweighed the positives. With even fewer tools and training in their kit to deal with the issues at hand, one must understand their reticence and admire their courage at intervening to help young Dave, an intervention that undoubtedly saved his life. Except for the advantage of hindsight and experience which would have aided in the speed of the intervention, it is hard to see how things could have been handled more effectively.

In fact Dave may have been the beneficiary of just such new experiences. The turbulent 1960's caused a social revolution across the spectrum and intervention of the state to fight child abuse was one of those areas of social concern. Attorney Marygold S. Melli has observed:

Beginning in the 1960s child… [END OF PREVIEW]

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