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David Pelzer's autobiography The Lost Boy (1997) is a very moving and disturbing account of his childhood experiences of severe abuse by his mother and abandonment by his father. He was removed from his mother's custody at age 12 by Child Protective Services and ended up in a series of foster homes for the next six years. He rarely spent more than a few months in each one, and did not receive the necessary psychological counseling that would have helped him resolve the issues of abuse and abandonment. Although David was grateful to the foster care system and believed it had literally saved his life, he recognized that it was often overwhelmed with the sheer volume of abuse cases and lacked a sufficient number of social workers and foster homes. On the whole, though, he was very satisfied with the social worker who saved him from his alcoholic and violently abusive mother and certain that she was a very caring individual. Had the system identified this abuse sooner instead of sending him back to his mother, he would certainly have been better off, but whether his severely disturbed mother would have benefited from treatment is more problematic. Essentially, the system worked by removing this child from the home but failed in certain important areas of follow up as he was passed from one foster home to another. He became very isolated and alienated, did poorly in school, and failed to make emotional bonds with any of his peers. Fortunately, though, David was particularly resilient and was able to obtain a GED at age 18 and then enlisted in the Air Force.
The paper did touch on how the book impacted you emotionally and cognitively. The writer wasn't specific about the particular points that caught your attention and your reactions to them in the book.
I found his description of himself extremely moving, given that he was covered in sores and bruises, dressed in filthy, tagged clothes and had to dig through garbage cans for food (Pelzer, p. 35). He had run away from home before, but the police believed his mother's lies that he was just upset because she would not let him ride his bike, and it really stood out in my mind when he tried to tell them that did not even have a bike and had never ridden one in his life. I found it ironic and upsetting that a police officer would tell him to "treat your parents with dignity and respect. You don't know how lucky you are," when faced with a child who was obviously hungry, neglected and brutalized (Pelzer, p. 30). It also struck me in a very profound way when he wrote that he would rather have spent the rest of his life in prison than gone back to his mother, such was the level of physical and emotional abuse and trauma that had been inflicted on this child of twelve. David then told the judge that he wanted to be a ward of the court and he "felt Mother's radar of hate flicker, then turn off" (Pelzer, p. 73). When I read those words, I shuddered inwardly and could almost feel her eyes on the back of my head.
I don't see where the writer Discuss "critical junctures" in the book that demanded an assessment for a course of action. Was the court and caseworkers assessment of the situation flawed? In what ways, did it help or hurt the situation? What would you have done differently?
David wrote at the end of the book that his mother probably would have killed him if he had stayed much longer with her, and I think that is true (Pelzer, p. 305). For the next six years, David drifted in and out of foster homes and also spent time in juvenile hall after being falsely accused of committing arson. His mother also tried to have him put in a mental institution at this point by lying again and claiming that he had set fires as a child, but her real intention was to get revenge against him for requesting to become a ward of the court. By 6th Grade he had "become fed up with the teeter-totter effect of my new life" and often felt isolated and alone, both at school and in his foster environment (Pelzer, p. 151). He became emotionally hardened and learned never to become too attached to any particular family or environment, because these changed so often. In 10th Grade, he described himself as frustrated and bored "because I had moved around so much and never stayed in one school more than a few months at a time" (Pelzer, p. 283). This experience had the effect of making him grow up very fast and develop adaptive skills, but of course he basically lost his childhood and teenage years. By age 17 he was already working full time, and had been placed in a class for slow learners in high school. Eventually, though, he obtained his GED and then enlisted in the Air Force (Pelzer, p. 296).
Discuss your thoughts regarding what you would have considered to have been some of the strengths in the way the caseworkers were helping Dave?
David wrote at the end of the book that she probably would have killed him if he had stayed much longer with her, and I think that is true (Pelzer, p. 305). David Pelzer recognized that the entire foster care system has its faults, but reiterated that it also saved his life. It got him away from a severely disturbed mother and indifferent father who never took any responsibility for him. Indeed, even though David's parents were divorced, his father made no effort to obtain custody and hardy ever visited his son, much less bothering to provide any support. I can only agree with him that he was better off without these parents, no matter that his situation from age 12-18 was anything but ideal. As he points out at the end of the book, in 1973 there were a few thousand reported cases of child abuse in California but by 1997 this had increased to 616,000 (Pelzer, p. 306). Obviously child abuse was very much n underreported crime forty years ago, and probably still is today, but the entire system is overwhelmed. There are simply not enough social workers and foster homes available to deal with this overwhelming problem, much less provide the necessary counseling and emotional support.
David did receive some of this from his foster parents, of course, since he lacked even many of the basic skills when the court took custody away from his mother, and in general he had a high opinion of the people who took care of him, no matter how much society criticizes the system. Although the system was successful in saving his life, it failed to provide competent mental health treatment for abused and neglected children, and even had a foster placement in his old neighborhood, which was too close to his mother. It also failed to pursue his father and force him to provide child support, and allowed unsupervised visits with his mother, who continued to make threats about attempting to win back custody. Nor did she receive any treatment for her own substance abuse and mental health issues although David was definitely correct that she should never have been allowed to keep custody of him and his four brothers.
What were some of their needs? What were some child factors that you would consider from the book that affected child safety? What would you have done differently and why? Next, discuss your thoughts on what processes' or procedures within the system helped protect Dave. What processes or procedures within the system failed to protect Dave?
David was extremely grateful to the social worker Ms, Gold, who he realized had very likely saved his life, and also to another police officer who gave him his word that he would never be forced to live with his mother again. Unlike the others, he had seen his mother for what she really was and she did not deceive him. At the hospital he was fed and given a bath, and the doctors treated his injuries, which were so severe that he was losing the feeling in his fingers. After this, he was sent to live in a foster home with 'Aunt Mary', the first of many over the next six years (Pelzer, p. 38). At the custody hearing, he told Ms. Gold that he greatly feared being sent back to his mother, and she replied that he would have to stand up and explain that to the judge. She also added that "I want you to know that I love you" (Pelzer, p. 65). His mother was a sociopath and obviously very manipulative, playing psychological games and accusing him of betraying her and the family. Ms. Gold recommended that he become a ward of the court until age 18,…[continue]
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