Parents Anonymous, other agencies work to stop child abuse


The 13-year-old boy would punch out windows, tear down doors and kick holes in the walls of his parents' home. His father, Donald, couldn't handle the destructive behavior.

Even though the teen's actions were the result of Tourette's syndrome -- a rare disease that causes involuntary actions and speech -- the father said he feared he might hurt his child.

"I never abused my kids, but I felt like I could go that way real easy," he said.

So three years ago, Donald turned to Parents Anonymous, a help organization for parents and their children. He traveled from his home in Catonsville to weekly meetings at the Oakland Mills Village Center Meeting House for advice on how to avoid reacting violently to his son's destructive behavior.

This month, as part of their National Child Abuse Prevention Month message, the county's child protection agencies have been urging other parents to reflect in a similar way about their reactions to their children.

"What happens to us as children is at the root of what happens most of the rest of our lives," said Elaine Fisher, executive director of Parents Anonymous of Central Maryland. "We want to help children build their self-esteem, so they won't hurt the next generation."

Howard County has a growing list of child abuse prevention services, including programs offered by Parents Anonymous, the Howard County Sexual Assault Center and Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland Inc.

In addition, the county offers programs through the Howard County Department of Social Services and its Child Advocacy Center.

The county has one of the lowest rates of reported child abuse cases in the state.

In 1992, there were 5.7 cases reported in Howard County per 1,000 children, up from 4.4 cases per 1,000 children in 1990, according to the Maryland Department of Human Resources' latest statistics.

Statewide, the rates were 8.2 per 1,000 in 1990 and 9.3 per 1,000 children in 1992.

In 1992, the Howard County officials substantiated 276 child abuse cases. Of those, 143 involved neglect, which can include a parent leaving a child at home alone or failing to feed and properly clothe the child. The number of neglect cases was up from 91 in 1990 and 102 in 1991.

Statewide, neglect is the leading type of child abuse, representing 47 percent of all cases, followed by 33 percent for physical abuse and 20 percent for sexual abuse cases.

Helen Szablya, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources, attributed the higher proportion of neglect cases to the fact that neglect includes a wide range of problems.

She also said that education campaigns have helped reduce the rate of physical abuse.

"It's much easier for an educated person to say, 'I shouldn't knock my kid down to the ground,' " Ms. Szablya said. But, she said, "The fact is that what is reported is probably a fraction of what goes on."

The number of substantiated physical abuse cases in Howard County decreased from 97 in 1991 to 84 in 1992.

The number of sexual abuse cases continues to rise. Human resources substantiated 37 sexual abuse cases in 1990, 39 in 1991 and 49 in 1992. Officials at the Columbia-based Howard County Sexual Assault Center reported 60 sexual assaults against children in 1993.

Brooke Slunt, education and training specialist for the Sexual Assault Center, attributed the increase in the number of sexual assault cases to more victims reporting abuse. But she said that some people still are reluctant to report assaults.

"It can be a very difficult thing to get people to come forward," said Ms. Slunt.

In a development that social service workers say may reduce child abuse, many parents now work with private agencies to improve their relationships with their children.

Ellicott City-based Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland Inc., for instance, has helped first-time parents care for their children, as well as treated victims of physical and sexual abuse and their abusers. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 1993, the service received 585 requests for service from Howard County residents.

Family and Children's Services plans to begin a therapy and training session for adolescents and parents next month. Each session will cost $10.

The Parents Anonymous meetings that Donald still attends each week are free. Those meetings are directed by Genevieve McCardell, who founded the Howard County branch of the group in January 1991.

Four to five people usually attend the weekly meetings, talking about problems that range from Donald's fear of hurting his children to the concerns of parents who have physically abused a child.

"It takes a lot of guts to come talk to a group and say, 'This is my weakness,' " Ms. McCardell said. "But there's nothing to be ashamed of, as long as you're learning from your mistakes."

Parents Anonymous can be contacted by calling the 24-hour "stress line" at 243-7337. Long-distance callers can call collect.

The Howard County Sexual Assault Center's 24-hour hot line can be reached by calling 997-3292.

Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland Inc. can be reached at 461-1277 Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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