Child Abuse and Neglect: “A Child Called It”

A child’s development from birth to adulthood is one of the most complex journeys in the human experience. In order to facilitate healthy development not only must the child learn skills that will aid him in surviving the world around him, he also requires constant guidance from a parental figure. This guidance is often not available and often ends with children being abused and maltreated. This paper will compare symptoms of abuse detailed within the autobiographical account written by Dave Pelzer known as “A child called It” and analyze them using recognized guidelines for child abuse victims.

Pelzer’s novel is an incredible real-life account of his own life as a boy when he was maltreated by his psychologically disturbed and abusive alcoholic mother. David speaks of how his mother was relatively normal in the beginning before unexpectedly transforming into a monster that made him go through unimaginable tortures both physical and mental. Through his inner strength and willpower David is able to survive his environment and eventually learn to fend for himself (Pelzer, 1995).

In analyzing the form of abuse that David went through at the hands of his alcoholic mother, we can divide the forms of abuse suffered by David into three types, developmental maltreatment, parental neglect and physical abuse. Given the importance of development within the scope of a child’s growth it is first important to understand the relationship they both shared. According to Crosston-Tower, the relationship model shared between the two is a parent-child relationship which is indicative of physically abusive families. According to the text in these cases, the physically abusive parent in question has abnormally high expectations of the child in question. These expectations are so complex that when the child inevitably does not meet them it results in annoyance and resentment on the part of the parent who acts out by abusing the child as a form of discipline in order to make him conform to their expectations (Crosston-Tower, Maltreatment and the Developing Child, 2007).

Though the definition above does not encompass the true nature of the relationship between David and his mother Catherine, it does however encompass the task and punishment dynamic that the child shares throughout the book with his mother. Aside from the fact that David had several chores around the house which he was required to do with expediency and without any question, there were also other tasks but to him by his mother, the requirements which if put to him were not met, would result in him being severely beaten. In chapter six we see a prime example of this when Catherine sends David out in the summer to mow various lawns around the neighborhood. Given her propensity for torturing him, she sets a quota of cash he must return to her each day or face physical abuse at her hands. Given the quota is impossible to meet, David ends up stealing nine dollars from the piggy bank of a girl and then being beaten for it by his mother when he is ousted by the parents of the girl. According to the text, these expectations are reflections of the parent’s own lives and their own unmet expectations which results in them seeking fulfillment of their needs in their children. Though in the book it is unclear what the needs of the mother actually are (Crosston-Tower, Maltreatment and the Developing Child, 2007) (Pelzer, 1995).

The amount of care in a family in the case of the parents is important in influencing the growth and development of the child. If the child does not receive sufficient care at home, then they will seek anyone who can offer such care indiscriminately and does not suspect strangers as being capable of wrong doing since they are convinced that their requirements will not be fulfilled at home. By chapter 6 in the story David’s has lost faith in both his father and his mother and it can be easily seen why he gets so attached to his substitute homeroom teacher and the school nurse given the circumstances in his home and actually develops a crush on the teacher in question (Crosston-Tower, Maltreatment and the Developing Child, 2007) (Pelzer, 1995).

The definition of child neglect is a difficult one due to the inherent complexities of the definition and its measurement. Though there is some congruency within the scientific field regarding that it is a condition where the guardian of the child through deliberate action or extraordinary inattentiveness causes the child to undergo distress or does not provide the facets which are deemed socially, scientifically and morally acceptable by society as being required for a child’s developmental best interests in terms of his physical, mental and emotional capacities. Perhaps the most ironic and defining characteristic of neglect which seems to encompass the tone of this book is that children who are neglected “must be seen to appreciate the true hopelessness of their existence.” (Crosston-Tower, The Neglect of Children , 2007)

In the book Pelzer though lives a relatively normal life outside his home away from his family, experiences high levels of neglect within his own home. During his childhood as written in chapter 4 David received the grand total of half a meal a day, which often would be leftover cereal from his brother’s breakfast. In order to stave off starvation David would either steal food from other children, the school cafeteria or eat the food which had been left in the garbage. Not only were his dietary requirements not met, but David was also required to sleep in the basement which was bereft of any significant heat or light. According to Joffe, Erickson and Egeland there are five categories which encompass the act of neglect, physical, educational, medical, mental health and emotional. David’s physical neglect has already been mentioned above and his education and mental health neglect is nonexistent. However, there is a truly shocking example of medical neglect which occurs in chapter 5 of the book in question. In this chapter Catherine in a fit of drunken rage ends up stabbing David in the stomach and instead of taking him to a hospital to receive medical attention, merely applies bandages and gauze to stop the bleeding. Equally shocking is the emotional neglect which occurs when David is forced to do the dishes despite his injuries and he seems to plead with his father to save him from this situation and ends up having his plight being completely disregarded (Crosston-Tower, The Neglect of Children , 2007) (Pelzer, 1995).

While this is one of the most extreme examples of neglect, there are other instances throughout the book which also act as examples. One of these is the emotional neglect experienced by David when his mother refuses to acknowledge him throughout the entire text, initially in chapter 4 referring to him only as “the boy”, eventually making it known in Chapter 7 that she considers him a total non-entity and calling him “It.” Emotional neglect is defined as when a parent does not give attention to a child’s emotional requirements, while medical neglect refers to the child’s medical requirements which may not be met or delayed. The examples of medical health neglect can range from simple bruises to the internal injuries suffered by David when his mother forces him to take a spoonful of ammonia in chapter 4 (Crosston-Tower, The Neglect of Children , 2007) (Pelzer, 1995).

Cantwell offers the language neglect is also another important form of inattention which occurs towards children. According to Cantwell this occurs when a parent fails to talk to his child an adequate amount of time resulting in the child’s failure to develop an internalization of language and learn the importance of social relationships. While it is true that David may not have experienced such neglect, the instance in chapter 6 where Catherine forbids the father from spending time with his child while washing the dishes may also be taken as a form of emotional neglect, since there was no other person except for his father and his baby brother Kevin whom he connected to. In fact another instance which can be taken into account is when David’s mother in chapter 7 calls him a baby murderer when he kicks her to avoid being choked. Though there are other indexes such as the CLL and the Child Neglect Index which can also be used to evaluate these actions, the instances of neglect seem to be justified according to the definitions provided (Crosston-Tower, The Neglect of Children , 2007; Pelzer, 1995).

This brings us to the final form of mistreatment, physical abuse. It is a consensus that physical abuse encompasses a non-coincidental hurt perpetrated on a child by a care giver. It is within this definition that a parent’s legal responsibility to the wellbeing of their child is established and upon failure to comply leads to an outcome where they would be punished by the law or society. In such situations the abuse is considered to be caused by the connection which exists between the child and the person abusing him. An example of this would be if the parent sees the child as a source of stress and in turn punishing him results in the child becoming more difficult (Crosston-Tower, The Physical Abuse of Children , 2007; Pelzer, 1995).

It is also said that families in which such abuse occurs are often secluded and have broken relationships with their neighbors and perhaps among the members of the household. The abrupt end of the friendship Catherine forged with Shirley in chapter 6, as well as the constant arguments between her and her husband can be indicative of this characteristic. According to Crosston-Tower the most indicative sign of abuse are bruises which can occur in several areas of the body such as the chest, head, neck, etc. Such signs are indicated throughout the story as well as the instances which caused them such the aforementioned choking incident in chapter 6 (Crosston-Tower, The Physical Abuse of Children , 2007; Pelzer, 1995).

One characteristic which David does not find in common with other abused children is in his capacity to enjoy life. Abused children lack the capability to play and find themselves unable to enjoy life. They also suffer from low self-esteem and loss of confidence resulting in learning disabilities. David however exhibits none of these symptoms as evidenced by his playtime with his baby brother Kevin in chapter 5. One symptom David does exhibit is one of hyper vigilance. This is a symptom in which children attempt to control other facets of their lives (Crosston-Tower, The Physical Abuse of Children , 2007) (Pelzer, 1995).

Though it is incredible that the neglect of this child was did not lead to an intervention by social services, it is not all that surprising. Given that such cases are difficult to establish, are typically associated with non-affluent households and neglectful families rarely see the consequences of their own actions it can be seen why David was not saved from this situation. The creation of Child Protection Teams can help in this case. They consist of staff from different fields such as schools who meet to discuss possible cases requiring child protection services. The social worker can then visit homes to inspect whether these claims hold any merit. The fact that in chapter 6 David intentionally lies to the social worker according to the training given to him by his mother or the way he was portrayed in his school as a problem child with imaginative stories certainly did not help matters (Crosston-Tower, Intervention: Reporting and Investigation , 2007; Pelzer, 1995).

If validation of this case had occurred on the other hand, the case worker would have a legal right to remove David from Catherine’s custody. This is done when the danger to the child is overshadowed by the need for consistency in his life. There are alternative which can also be taken into account, such as the removal of the abuser from the family structure, which in this case being the mother would greatly benefit the entire family unit. The removal is uncontrolled by the parents and the placement of the child is up to the courts (Crosston-Tower, Intervention:Case Management and Roles of Other Professionals, 2007).

Since medical professionals, counselors, social workers and school personnel have a duty to inform social services of any suspicion of abuse it is supposed that the school nurse within the story informed them on behalf of David. The perception of school nurses is invaluable in these cases due to their knowledge of abuse and neglect symptoms and their contact with children and their families. The parent’s or the child’s explanation of the injury as well as their observation of their behavior can be invaluable in this assessment (Crosston-Tower, Intervention:Case Management and Roles of Other Professionals, 2007).

In terms of the role of medical social physicians they are required to ask questions and take radiological scans, test results, previous medical records as evidence of abuse and can also diagnose symptoms common to neglect victims such as unmet medical requirements and failure to thrive. A physical exam to assess and plan for the future medical treatments is also necessary (Crosston-Tower, Intervention:Case Management and Roles of Other Professionals, 2007).

Courts are usually responsible for deciding legal ramifications and would become involved in this case since the parents are unable to provide the proper care for David and he has been physically harmed for which medical treatment has been denied. Children like the parents have a legal right to a hearing and their own counsel as well as the right to a life with a family (Crosston-Tower, The Legal Response to Child Abuse and Neglect, 2007).

Courts have the right to assign guardianship to case workers so that they can decide the best care treatment for the child. In order to prosecute for neglect or abuse the court turns the responsibility over to the police for investigation. Medical and psychological evaluations of the parents and children are taken and a dispositional hearing is conducted to decide the ultimate fate of the child. The case can then be dismissed or the child could be taken into protective custody depending on the evidence collected (Crosston-Tower, The Legal Response to Child Abuse and Neglect , 2007).


Crosston-Tower, C. (2007). Intervention: Reporting and Investigation. In C. Crosston-Tower, Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect (7th Edition) (pp. 226-255). New York : Prentice Hall.

Crosston-Tower, C. (2007). Intervention:Case Management and Roles of Other Professionals. In C. Crosston-Tower, Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect (7th Edition) (pp. 256-274). New York: Prentice Hall.

Crosston-Tower, C. (2007). Maltreatment and the Developing Child. In C. Crosston-Tower, Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect (7th Edition) (pp. 47-66). New York: Prentice Hall.

Crosston-Tower, C. (2007). The Legal Response to Child Abuse and Neglect. In C. Crosston-Tower, Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect (7th Edition) (pp. 275-296). New York : Prentice Hall.

Crosston-Tower, C. (2007). The Neglect of Children. In C. Crosston-Tower, Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect (7th Edition) (pp. 67-95). New York: Prentice Hall.

Crosston-Tower, C. (2007). The Physical Abuse of Children. In C. Crosston-Tower, Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect (7th Edition) (pp. 96-120). New York: Prentice Hall.

Pelzer, D. (1995). A Child Called ‘It’. Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc..

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PsychologyWriting. "Child Abuse and Neglect: “A Child Called It”." September 28, 2022.