Signs of Child Abuse in A Child Called ‘It’

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "A Child Called 'It'" by Dave Pelzer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the signs of child abuse in A Child Called “It”? How was David Pelzer finally saved and were there signs of child abuse that were missed at first?

In A Child Called “It” David experiences child abuse for most of his time in elementary school. Despite being physically abused and mostly starved, it took several years for the signs of child abuse to result in him being removed from the home.

See what the signs of child abuse in the book were and how they might have been missed.

Abuse at Home While in Elementary School

When David gets to second grade, his teacher Miss Moss notices his bruises, constant tiredness, and ragged clothes. Miss Moss asks David what’s going on, but he simply repeats the lies Mother has instructed him to tell. Unconvinced and seeing the signs of child abuse, Miss Moss talks to the principal, who calls Mother; when David arrives home from school that day, Mother is irate and beats him until his nose bleeds and he loses a tooth. 

Mother has to go to the school to meet with the principal. Surprisingly, she comes home elated: She brags to David that she convinced the principal that David makes up stories and even hurts himself to get attention. Mother told the principal that the school staff shouldn’t believe any of David’s tall tales about being hurt or hungry. 

David is devastated. First, even if he musters the courage to ask for help from anyone at school, now no one will believe him. Additionally, the meeting has bolstered Mother’s confidence and David fears that it will make her more brazen and brutal. 

During the first couple weeks of David’s fourth-grade year, he has a substitute teacher who intuits that there are problems in David’s home life. 

The substitute teacher informs the school nurse. The following month, the nurse calls David to see her, and she asks him about his bruises and tattered clothes. 

David initially repeats the lies Mother has taught him to tell. After some talking, David begins to trust the nurse enough to tell the truth, and the nurse invites David to come back and talk to her anytime. 

All the Signs of Child Abuse Add Up

In March 1973, David is a fifth-grader in Daly City, California, just outside of San Francisco. When David arrives at school, he goes through a familiar routine with the school nurse: David removes his tattered clothes and the nurse checks his body for new bruises and scars. 

David claims he ran into a door, but the nurse has heard all his cover-ups before and David eventually admits that his mother inflicted them. Still, David’s terrified his alcoholic mother will find out that he revealed the truth and beat him for it, like she did when the principal called the year prior to ask about David’s bruises. 

Today the principal, two of David’s teachers, the school nurse, and a police officer have assembled, and David fears he’s in trouble because he regularly steals food from his classmates’ lunches. They assure David he’s not in trouble and ask about his mother. The nurse asks David to show the others the scar on his stomach from when his mother stabbed him, and David explains that Mother punishes him because he’s bad. 

The school staff members are jeopardizing their jobs to save David. (Shortform note: The first child abuse reporting laws were enacted in the 1960s, but they pertained to doctors. By 1974—the year after David was taken out of Mother’s custody—only 24 states mandated teachers and 34 states mandated nurses to report suspected signs of child abuse.)

The police officer takes a terrified David to the police station. The officer calls David’s mother to tell her that David is now in the custody of the San Mateo Juvenile Department. David is still apprehensive and thinks he’s going to jail, but the officer reassures him that not only is David not in trouble, he’s finally free. 

(Shortform note: Pelzer doesn’t say what specific incident precipitated his removal from his home or why it didn’t happen sooner if the school nurse had seen the signs of child abuse. After he’s taken from his mother’s custody, he enters the foster care system, which he chronicles in his second book, The Lost Boy.)

Signs of Child Abuse in A Child Called ‘It’

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Dave Pelzer's "A Child Called 'It'" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full A Child Called 'It' summary:

  • How David Pelzer survived horrific abuse at the hands of his mother
  • How victims and survivors of abuse can find support and overcome their painful past
  • Why child abuse may go unnoticed by other adults

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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