Famous cases of parental abuse

Updated February 21, 2017

A case of parental abuse may become "famous" for different reasons. Either the crime is particularly memorable or the severity of the abuse is such that it shocks the public and remains a discussion topic for years to come. Parental abuse is considered particularly distressing because a child's home is the place where he should feel safest.

Elizabeth Steinberg

Elizabeth Steinberg, also known as Lisa, was 6 years old when she was beaten to death by the parents who had adopted her at birth. Although the murder happened in 1987, following years of physical and emotional abuse, the case is still remembered today for several reasons. The severity of Lisa's abuse shocked America. She had been beaten, was covered in dirt and had suffered brain injuries. Her adoptive parents were both respected individuals -- he a criminal attorney in Manhattan, she a former editor and writer at Random House publishing company. The story created an explosion of questions, anger and media attention.


"Genie" was the name given to a feral girl who was locked in a dark bedroom and beaten whenever she spoke for the first 12 years of her life. The case became known as the most serious isolation of a person in American history. Her nearly blind mother, who had also been under close control of her husband, eventually escaped with "Genie" in November 1970. She coped well in social situations at first and was even able to befriend some of the people involved in her care. Unfortunately, when the funding, media attention and research dried up, "Genie" regressed to her original, mute state.

Dave Pelzer

Considered to be one of the worst cases of maternal abuse in California, Dave Pelzer (born in 1960) was routinely beaten, degraded and forced to eat his own vomit as a child by his alcoholic mother. He survived and wrote his own account of the abuse in a Pulitzer Prize-nominated book entitled "A Child Called It" in which he describes how the abuse began when he was approximately 4 years old. The book has been translated into 40 languages. At the age of 12, Dave entered foster care, and at 18 he joined the U.S. Air Force. In 1993, Dave was honoured as an "outstanding young American" for teaching people about child abuse and how to prevent it.

Shannon Johnson

The University of Missouri estimates that for every 1,000 children, there are 15 cases of abuse and neglect by those in charge of the child's welfare, and this figure mirrors the national average. The recent (2011) case in which a small boy drowned while his mother, Shannon Johnson, was on the social networking site Facebook illustrates that child abuse and neglect represent a serious, current problem. Baby Joseph Johnson was only 13 months old and had been diagnosed with a seizure disorder only days before his death. Shannon Johnson, his 34-year-old mother, pleaded guilty and received 10 years in prison.

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About the Author

Natasha Parks has been a professional writer since 2001 with work published online and in book format for "Thomson Reuters," the "World Patents Index" and Her areas of expertise are varied and include physics, biology, genetics and computing, mental health, relationships, family crises and career development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Biophysics from King's College, London.