Every Thursday night, 10 parents who have physically or verbally abused their children gather in a small garden apartment in Mount Rainier.
They are members of one of the 14 Maryland chapters of Parents Anonymous, a worldwide self-help group for child abuses. The Mount Rainier group, like all units of Parents Anonymous, is also open to parents who seek help because they have sexually abused their children, said Jack Csicsek, state coordinator.
Typically, parents who join the group lack self-esteem, feel isolated from their friends and spouses, and were abused themselves as children, said Ida Eppley, a caseworker with the Prince George's County Department of Social Services, which sponsors the group.
Discussion at the Thursday night meetings often revolves around childhood memories, as parents recall beatings and other abuse they suffered as children, said Eppley. The parents said that through their group meetings they have learned to distinguish between punishment and discipline, and this has helped them to stop abusing their own children.
"Punishment and discipline meant the same thing to me," recalls a 25-year-old mother of two who said she left home at 16 to get away from a stepmother who beat, bit and choked her. The woman said she now realizes that "to punish children is to hurt them; to discipline them is to teach them."
Marie, a 30-year-old mother, said she once believed she was "disciplining" her daughter, then 4 1/2, when she screamed at the child, slapped her across the face repeatedly and shoved her. Realizing that "something was wrong," Marie said, she turned to Parents Anonymous in 1975, and became head of the newly formed Mount Rainier unit.
The Parents Anonymous practice of having parents who have been child abusers lead the groups is one reason for the organization's growth to 1,300 chapters since its founding in 1970, believes the director and founder, Leonard Lieber of Torrance, Calif.
"The major responsibility for change is in the hands of the parent instead of a private therapist who looks at a parent as a patient," he said.
Experience has shown that if a parent stays in a Parents Anonymous group for several weeks, he or she will stop physically abusing children, Lieber believes, and if he or she stays six months, verbal abuse will decrease. Generally, abuse will stop altogether after a parent has spent a year in a group, he said.
Anonymity is guaranteed. Members are not required to reveal their real names to anyone, even to other group members.
During the past three years, chapters of a self-help group founded specifically for parents who have sexually abused their children have been organized on the East Coast, although none has been established yet in the Washington area.
The first eastern seaboard chapter the organization, Parents United, was formed in Virginia Beach in 1979, and three others have been established there since. Half of Parents United's 60 chapters are in California, where the organization was founded in 1972 by Hank Giarretto of San Jose.
Parents United differs from Parents Anonymous in that it requires those who want to join to report any sexual abuses they have committed to police or social agencies. Having to confront law enforcement officers forces parents to admit that sexual abuse has occurred, which is often the biggest obstacle to successful treatment, said Giarretto.