Frances Jelenko Fitch, an addiction counselor who trained doctors to treat alcoholism, dies at 83

Frances Jelenko Fitch, a psychotherapist who specialized in treating alcoholism and counseled domestic abusers at a time when few others did, died Oct. 1 of kidney failure. A Tuscany-Canterbury resident, she was 83.

Mrs. Fitch got her start in the mental health field as a volunteer at Spring Grove Hospital, and in an alcoholism counselor training program offered by the Baltimore City Health Department and the Johns Hopkins University. She went on to teach others how to help people recover from alcoholism as a clinical assistant professor at at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

“She had a deep sense of optimism for those she treated,” said Dr. John R. Lion, a psychiatrist on the University of Maryland School of Medicine faculty. “She could both comfort and confront her patients and teach what she knew to students and resident doctors.”

In 1979, Mrs. Fitch founded a therapy group for domestic abusers at the House of Ruth, a program that was considered unorthodox at the time and drew the attention of then-WJZ-TV reporter Oprah Winfrey.

“She was very proud of that work,” said her daughter, Ellen Patterson of Baltimore. “She certainly made a difference in how people got treated.”

Mrs. Fitch grew up in Northwest Baltimore, the daughter of Helen Simpson Jelenko (later Helen Simon) and Carl Jelenko. She graduated from the Park School in 1953.

After completing the alcoholism training program in 1969, she went on to study psychology at Morgan State College, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1973, and at Loyola College, receiving a master’s degree in 1975. She started teaching at the University of Maryland in 1977.

She was on the faculty of the group counseling training program at the Maryland Institute of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Studies throughout the 1980s and served as a consultant to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for its Office of Education and Training for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

She served on various panels advising policymakers on mental health issues and treatment of alcoholism, including the Maryland chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the Governor’s Advisory Board on Alcoholism. She was also an adjunct instructor at Goucher College and the Community College of Baltimore County. She retired from private practice in 1999.

Her daughter and her husband, Steven J. Fitch, said her passion for helping people overcome addiction came from her own experience recovering from alcoholism.

Dr. Lion said that “she knew the complex behaviors of those who drank, hid their drinking, or were in states of denial. He called her “the most remarkable clinician when it came to managing patients suffering from alcoholism.”

Amid the seriousness of her work, Mrs. Fitch was also known for her sense of humor.

“She could be really silly, but she was also just very funny,” Mrs. Patterson said. “She loved telling jokes, although she could never tell them right. She really loved laughter.”

Mrs. Fitch donated her body to be used in medical research.

A memorial service will be held Saturday at 1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore at North Charles and West Franklin streets.

Along with Mr. Fitch and Mrs. Patterson, Mrs. Fitch is survived by a son, David Schwartz, of Canandaigua, N.Y.; a stepdaughter, Cynthia Sheller, of Olympia, Wash.; three stepsons, Martin Fitch of Baltimore, Brian Vanderplas of Old Lyme, Conn., and Steven Vanderplas of Tampa, Fla.; three grandchildren and 10 step-grandchildren. An earlier marriage to Lloyd Stewart, later known as Lloyd Schwartz, ended in divorce.

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