This developmental theory provides one possible explanation for why Pelzer continued to defend and protect his mother for so long, and felt such a duty to do so; as the object of his repressed desires and his attempts to exhibit protective and masculine behavior, this would have been his essential task (Heffner 2003).
The age of six is somewhat on the cusp of Piaget's stages of preoperational and concrete operational. Many of the author's observations, such as that he "could determine what kind of day [he] was going to have by the way [his mother] dressed," suggest that he was already in the concrete operational stage, where future events could be abstracted from current information in a cause-and-effect manner (Pelzer 1995; pp. 30). Becoming stuck in this developmental phase due to a lack of stimulation and motivation was almost certainly a factor in the author's perspective throughout much of his life of an immediacy about the world and the need for concrete information in order to make rational judgments (Springhouse 1990). Abstract reasoning was a luxury that a child forced to busy itself with the task of survival simply didn't develop, in this particular instance.
A simpler and far more disturbing analysis of the development of Pelzer as a child is found in the theories of Albert Bandura. Bandura's theory of moral development does not have specific stages, but posits that development, especially in a moral sense, is the product of children mimicking adult behavior (Fraser et al. 2001, pp. 196-9). In Pelzer's case, this very clearly applies to his internalization of his mother's constant insistence that he was worthless, as well as simple and essentially a bad person. Pelzer often repeats these assertions and mentions the extent to which he believed his mothers claims, which strongly suggests the aptness of Bandura's theory to his situation. When he is reduced to stealing other children's food, Pelzer also notes the keen sense of guilt he felt because he knew his actions were wrong (Pelzer 2009, pp. 45-60). His experiential learning had taught him how to survive, but he also knew right from wrong from having observed adult behavior.
Pelzer is not a psychologist, or any other type of social scientist or social worker. He does not use specific theories explicitly in his book, yet evidence for many theories can be found within the text. Both the trajectory of Pelzer's development and his specific maladaptive behaviors can be at least partially explained and projected by one or more of these theories. There is not, however, a dominant theory in the book; this was not the intent of the author nor a perspective he would be especially qualified to undertake. Instead, his description of his own development can be used as a way to examine many developmental principles.
Applications of a Child Called it in Social Work Practice and Policy
There are many obvious implications for social work that arise out of David's story and the various theoretical interpretations that can be made from the events as Pelzer describes them. Essentially, there are three primary areas of concern for the social welfare system and an individual social worker assigned to a similar case. The first concern is the most obvious and the most pressing; David's welfare -- and the welfare of any abuse child -- must receive the greatest degree of attention, and the quickest. There are certainly larger factors at work that have an effect on the child's welfare, but first and foremost appropriate living environments and caretakers must be found, in whatever way the system is best able to provide these things. Second, the mother -- or the abuser -- must also be scrutinized. There are elements of criminality and of psychological distress, but although the latter might mitigate the former it does not excuse it. Finally, there are the larger social issues at work, such as those that tend to promote alcoholism and that allow abuse to be ignored and/or go unreported, and thus allow the problem to be hidden and perpetuated.
The abuse victim is at once the easiest and most difficult of these concerns to deal with. Removal from the abusive situation can and should be effected immediately, as there is no potential for healthy growth in such a living environment. This is the easy part. Finding an environment that is conducive to healthy development, especially after a traumatic experience like David's abuse, is far more difficult. The system is not exactly overflowing with people looking to take in abused twelve-year-olds. Efforts to establish more effective and healthier (both physically and psychologically) group homes, as well as increased efforts to both enlist and regulate foster families, would both help this issue immensely.
Dealing with the mother leads to no small amount of complication, either. Child abuse is certainly a crime, and there is no doubt that any abuser should suffer some sort of punishment for their actions. This does not solve the problem, however, and with the current state of prisons in this country such incarceration can often lead to increased criminality, aggression, and violence -- making the problem worse. Thus, punishment needs to be balanced by rehabilitation. Pelzer depicts his mother as an alcoholic, and there are recognized methods and institutions for helping to combat this particular psychological problem. Treatment in this case is definitely warranted, and should be administered. Understanding the reasons behind the abuse will not exonerate the abuser, but it will help society to produce more effective individuals and to deal with abuse more effectively.
This leads to the overriding social problems that are apparent in Pelzer's book. The most essential of these is the ignorance that society in general and those directly involved with David's welfare on a day-to-day basis had of his abuse, and their willingness to continue ignoring the problem rather than risking anything themselves to confront it. This situation has largely changed over the decades between the events of the story and the book's publication, but greater awareness of the signs of child abuse and the public duty of reporting it is still needed. A great number of abuse cases are still allowed to persist for years, only to have multiple witnesses come forward once someone finally makes a report or other evidence is found. David's situation could have been ended much faster by an observant and uncompromising teacher, as could many contemporary victims of abuse.
David Pelzer's case is a very specific one, and that does have the effect of making any generalities drawn from it rather suspect and superficial. The details of his case could easily be substituted with those of another abuse victim, however, and though the severity of the abuse might change, many of the basic applications and implications in the world of social work would remain unchanged. There is always at least one victim, at least one abuser, and many individuals who allow the problem to persist. Each of these issues needs to be addressed in order to combat the problem of abuse in a way that is both individually effective and that can reduce the number of abuse incidents in society in general. Different methods and approaches must of course be brought to bear on each of these issues separately, but unless they are tackled collectively the true problem of abuse can never be addressed.
There are many ways in which various theories of human behavior and social environment can be applied to David Pelzer's a Child Called it. None of them are especially pleasant, given the nature of the story, but all of them are elucidating. When analyzing a case such as this, it is important to keeping in mind that the better such extreme cases are understood, the better they can be handled. Such work might not be easy, but it is vital if there is to be any hope of building a better society for all of its members.
Fraser, C.; Burchell, B. & Hay, D. (2001). Introducing social psychology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Heffner. (2003). "Freud's Stages of Psychosexual Development." Accessed 12 October 2009. http://allpsych.com/psychology101/sexual_development.html
Pelzer, D. (1995). A Child Called it. Omaha: Omaha Press.