Parents Anonymous Is Established to Treat Abusive Parents

Parents Anonymous, a group enabling parents who abuse their children to meet with one another for therapy to end the cycle of violence, was established in 1969 and became an important nationwide agency.

Summary of Event

Jolly K. helped to found in 1969 an organization designed to help people who faced problems similar to her own. Jolly had a severely deprived childhood, during which she lived in thirty-eight foster homes. She turned to a life of crime and became a prostitute. Her occupation and harried way of life did not prevent her from having children of her own. Toward the youngest of these, a daughter, she was especially abusive. She recognized that she was unable to control the anger within her and sought professional help. She became acquainted with Leonard Lieber, a psychiatric social worker, and embarked upon a program of therapy. Parents Anonymous
[kw]Parents Anonymous Is Established to Treat Abusive Parents (1969)
[kw]Abusive Parents, Parents Anonymous Is Established to Treat (1969)
[kw]Parents, Parents Anonymous Is Established to Treat Abusive (1969)
Parents Anonymous
[g]North America;1969: Parents Anonymous Is Established to Treat Abusive Parents[10120]
[g]United States;1969: Parents Anonymous Is Established to Treat Abusive Parents[10120]
[c]Organizations and institutions;1969: Parents Anonymous Is Established to Treat Abusive Parents[10120]
[c]Social issues and reform;1969: Parents Anonymous Is Established to Treat Abusive Parents[10120]
[c]Psychology and psychiatry;1969: Parents Anonymous Is Established to Treat Abusive Parents[10120]
Jolly K.
Lieber, Leonard
Mondale, Walter

Having benefited from her contact with Lieber, Jolly was eager to enable others with her problem to have the opportunity for treatment. Rather than favoring an expansion of professional programs, however, Jolly had another idea. She thought that abusive parents would find discussions with others in their predicament valuable and that these discussions would help to convince such parents that they were not uniquely evil. Persons in a group of the sort she had in mind would give each other confidence. Lieber enthusiastically supported Jolly’s idea, and a group was established in 1969, meeting first in Lieber’s office. Later, the group moved to St. Paul’s Church in Redondo Beach, California. At Jolly’s suggestion, the group called itself Mothers Anonymous.

Jolly continued to take up the cause and made numerous speeches on the group’s behalf, recounting her own experiences as an abused child and abusive parent. Newspaper and television coverage soon aroused popular interest in the organization, and branches were quickly established elsewhere in California, including one at the California Institute for Women, a major women’s prison. Expansion required the group to become more formalized. Accordingly, a board of directors, consisting of both parents and professionals, was formed. In 1971, Mothers Anonymous became Parents Anonymous (PA). The shift was made to acknowledge that child abuse could stem from either parent. Sessions of the group were open to fathers as well as mothers.

Meanwhile, Jolly continued her indefatigable campaign on behalf of the group. PA placed her on salary, enabling her to give talks and interviews nationwide. In 1973, Congress passed legislation dealing with child abuse, in part owing to PA’s efforts. The publicity enabled the group to expand even further, and branches were established throughout the United States. After 1973, PA was able to secure federal funding, which greatly assisted its expansion. In 1973, there were about forty chapters in the United States; by 1982, the number had increased to more than thirteen hundred. PA had become one of the largest self-help groups in America. Unfortunately, Jolly K. did not live to see the full impact of her campaign. She died in 1980, apparently as a result of suicide.

The activities of Parents Anonymous reflect a specific approach to the causes and cure of child abuse. In some respects, the program resembles that of Alcoholics Anonymous Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). As in that famous group, heavy stress is placed on the support that the members provide to one another. Further, the organization is divided into local chapters, and, again as with AA, sponsors play a crucial role in the group’s deliberations. Differences, however, far outweigh similarities between the two programs. Members of PA need not subscribe to a system of beliefs along the lines of the 12 Steps of AA. Further, members of PA converse with one another in unplanned interchanges rather than by giving confessional addresses in which the individual’s acknowledgment of a problem is of crucial significance.

Even some of the likenesses do not go beyond the superficial. In AA, each member has a sponsor; in PA, there is a sponsor for the chapter as a whole. If PA does not base itself on its more famous counterpart, what are its guiding principles? A PA meeting resembles an ordinary group-therapy session, where members may discuss whatever is on their minds. By making abusive parents aware that others suffer from similar problems, the group teaches members to think of themselves as ordinary people with problems rather than as maleficent monsters wishing their children harm. Members’ self-confidence rises as a result, enabling them to deal better with situations likely to result in abuse.

Most instances of child abuse arise from anger; unexpected situations throw the parent into a rage. By discussing past instances in which problems have arisen, group members can prepare themselves to avert future outbursts. Some in the group may be able to assist by advising specific techniques contoured to the reported behavior. Discussions are not rigidly confined to specific sorts of child abuse. Members often talk about their backgrounds and personalities, and meetings sometimes become difficult to distinguish from an ordinary group-therapy session.

Although the PA program is not orchestrated around a fixed agenda, the group bases itself on a specific model of child abuse. Almost all abusive parents were themselves abused as children. Episodes of abuse often match incidents in the parent’s life: Those whose parents constantly screamed at them will be likely to scream at their own children. Because of this “matching” effect, PA places great stress on descriptions of a member’s childhood. Abuse of the parent as a child provides the general background underlying parental misconduct but fails to account for individual episodes.

Although many of PA’s activities depend upon interaction among group members, the program has other aspects. A chapter has one or more sponsors, who are parents not suffering from the problem of child abuse. They enjoy being parents and are successful at it; members look to them for guidance and take them as role models. The chair of the group, by contrast, is someone who has been an abuser in the past but has successfully dealt with the problem. The chair directs a vital part of the organization’s work, in addition to taking a role as group leader. Members of the chapter have a hotline available to them, which they can telephone if an abusive episode is likely to ensue or is already in progress. By calling the hotline, parents can relieve the pressure responsible for an incident and obtain advice on how to cope with their children’s behavior. Members of the group are encouraged to telephone whenever an incident seems likely; in this respect, PA resembles AA and other organizations that deal with substance abuse.


Family life in the United States before and after the middle of the twentieth century has been markedly different. Before the 1960’s, and especially in the nineteenth century, the law regarded children as exclusively under the power of their parents. Parental methods of discipline and child rearing were in general not subject to review, except for cases of extreme cruelty and neglect.

The notion of “abuse” is a relative one; it connotes behavior that goes beyond an accepted social standard of conduct. Much of what in the 1970’s and 1980’s was considered abuse would have qualified as perfectly normal behavior in an earlier period. In the 1960’s, a trend toward change accelerated. Children began to be viewed as independent entities with rights and were not totally subject to the fiat of their parents. Physical discipline tended to become less severe, and its social acceptability declined. As a result, the threshold for abuse became lower. Progress in medicine since the 1950’s contributed to this trend. By use of X rays and other diagnostic techniques, doctors became able to identify injuries that stemmed from physical abuse. The founding of Parents Anonymous in 1971 reflected these developments.

When Jolly K. attempted to found a group of abusive parents, she found a ready response to her efforts. PA has not been merely a passive reactor to trends. PA played a key part in the passage of congressional legislation in 1973, the first federal regulation in U.S. history dealing with child abuse. Jolly K. was a key witness before the Senate subcommittee chaired by Senator Walter Mondale.

The organization’s activities were also influenced by the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The ensuing openness about sexual matters made people more willing to disclose incidents of sexual abuse by their parents, and public awareness of this problem rose. The organization won the support of the U.S. government as a model program for coping with family abuse, and millions of parents and children are numbered among those who have benefited from its programs. Parents Anonymous

Further Reading

  • Biller, Henry B., and Richard S. Solomon. Child Maltreatment and Paternal Deprivation. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1986. Researchers in the field of child abuse discusses the inadequate treatment by fathers as likely to result in a parent who practices child abuse. Extensive coverage of sexual abuse. Both psychological and sociological studies are discussed.
  • Crosson-Tower, Cynthia. Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect. 6th ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon, 2005. Well-written, in-depth, easy-to-understand text for professionals and general readers. Excellent references and suggested readings.
  • Daro, Deborah. Confronting Child Abuse. New York: Free Press, 1988. Places abused children into several subpopulations and analyzes the major theories and preventive techniques for each kind of abuse. Discusses Parents Anonymous, indicating both the successes and problems of the group.
  • Dorne, Clifford K. An Introduction to Child Maltreatment in the United States: History, Public Policy, and Research. 3d ed. Monsey, N.Y.: Criminal Justice Press, 2002. An important textbook that examines the history and theory of child abuse and maltreatment in the United States, with discussion of Parents Anonymous. This updated edition addresses, also, the “burgeoning multidisciplinary scholarly literature on the physical and sexual abuse of children, including less-explored topics such as child neglect, ’emotional’ child maltreatment, and institutional abuse.” Highly recommended for all readers.
  • Goldman, Renitta L., and Richard M. Gargiulo, eds. Children at Risk: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Child Abuse and Neglect. Austin, Tex.: Pro-Ed, 1990. A survey of the nature and incidence of abuse, with extensive analysis of sexual misconduct. Chapters discuss the role of medical practitioners in dealing with abuse cases and prosecution of child molesters. A chapter describes community organizations aimed at combating abuse.
  • Hawkins, Paula. Children at Risk: My Fight Against Child Abuse—A Personal Story and a Public Plea. Bethesda, Md.: Adler and Adler, 1986. A victim of childhood sexual abuse vividly describes her experiences. The author discusses efforts to combat child abuse and programs to aid abducted children. Case-history method makes this book an excellent popular introduction.
  • Herbruck, Christine Comstock. Breaking the Cycle of Child Abuse. Minneapolis, Minn.: Winston Press, 1979. A detailed and influential account of a Parents Anonymous group in which the author participated. First, the stories of the members are recounted separately, and then the activities of the group are described. The members of the group tend to think of one another as belonging to an extended family.
  • Mayhall, Pamela D., and Katherine Eastlack Norgard. Child Abuse and Neglect: Sharing Responsibility. New York: Macmillan, 1986. A comprehensive assessment of child abuse. Discusses the history of children, stressing the severity with which children were often treated in past eras.
  • Meier, John H., ed. Assault Against Children: Why It Happens, How to Stop It. San Diego, Calif.: College-Hill Press, 1985. This book contains an excellent reference section consisting of twenty-two pages of entries, many of which are scholarly journal articles.
  • Parents Anonymous. http://www.parentsanonymous .org/. The Web site for Parents Anonymous provides a history of the organization and offers a listing of resources for parents, social workers, and others interested in stopping child abuse.
  • Rafael, Teresa, and Lisa Pion-Berlin. Parents Anonymous: Strengthening Families. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999. A 12-page guide to Parents Anonymous, including an outline of its founding, its ongoing history, and its structure. Includes sidebars and other relevant information. Available at Highly recommended.
  • Stearns, Peter N. Childhood in World History. New York: Routledge, 2006. A brief, focused study on the international history of children and childhood, with chapters on childhood and children in agricultural societies, in classical times, and the twentieth century; children in industrialized countries; and children in the context of war and violence. Bibliography and index.
  • Turnell, Andrew, and Steve Edwards. Signs of Safety: A Solution and Safety Oriented Approach to Child Protection Casework. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. Proposes the question of how child protection workers can build partnerships with parents in situations where there is suspected or confirmed child abuse or neglect. Provides practical strategies for building partnerships with parents, and includes case examples.

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