Stopping child abuse in Maryland became her life's work

April 03, 1995|By Suzanna Stephens | Suzanna Stephens,Contributing Writer

Twenty years ago, Lee Johnson rededicated her life to the elimination of child abuse by founding Parents Anonymous of Maryland Inc. Wednesday night, guests attending the 20th Anniversary Gala for Parents Anonymous of Maryland will pay tribute to her efforts.

Mrs. Johnson, 47, who lives with her husband John in the Hunt Valley area of Baltimore County, started the Maryland chapter of the national organization -- and she also has graduated from its self-help program.

In 1974, Mrs. Johnson (then Mrs. Lapicki) moved to Maryland from New York when her children were all young. In a new and unfamiliar environment, her facade of well-being crumbled. "There was a series of things that happened. My structured world as I knew it started to break down and fall apart," she says. "I realized . . . that things had to change."

Her father was dying and depended on her for care. Her children always seemed to be sick, and her then-husband's job was becoming less and less secure. So was their marriage. "I found myself extremely short-tempered, wishing there were a place I could go and vent . . . I needed a source of help and support and there was nowhere to go."

She sought help from a counseling service, but found it "less than satisfying."

She then saw a member of Parents Anonymous on a TV talk show speaking about feeling out of control, and how acting on this frustration could be abusive to children.

It was then Mrs. Johnson made the connection between her own frustrations as a parent and the effect her temper was having on her children. She called the national headquarters of Parents Anonymous and soon after, she founded Parents Anonymous of Maryland.

The first meeting of P.A. of Maryland met in 1975 at Rodgers Forge Elementary School. With the help of a social worker, Kee Hall, whose role as a sponsoring professional was to provide resources for outside assistance, Mrs. Johnson said that she and Parents Anonymous of Maryland gained the confidence to grow.

Leading the organization required Mrs. Johnson's full-time attention. She suddenly was giving presentations and lectures throughout the Mid-Atlantic area (which led to her founding P.A. programs in Delaware and Virginia), and making appearances on local TV talk shows. For more than five years, the 24-hour hot line for Parents Anonymous of Maryland was her home number.

Although the time and energy demanded in managing the organization made home life increasingly difficult for the newly divorced Mrs. Johnson and her children, she was able to endure any hardship because of her involvement. The time she was giving to P.A. meant less time for her kids.

Her daughter Vanessa Lapicki, now 22 and the youngest of the three,says, "We could tell Mom was frustrated. She was angry a lot. We knew she was doing this great thing, but we wanted some attention, too. We'd listen to the horrible things the other P.A. kids were doing, and then we'd do them to get the attention."

Through her work, Mrs. Johnson says she was able to get past her own childhood of physical and verbal abuse, and break the cycle.

"The biggest change was that I was growing as a person and could handle the stresses," she says. "I was able to cope with life. Being a single mom with three small kids is never easy. Strength came from group meetings and [the group leader]."

Mrs. Johnson says P.A. support groups allow members to share feelings of frustration without being judged. "In that safe environment, you begin to blossom and grow. You can get the anger out. Having the feelings are OK, and P.A. can help you break the habit of lashing out at your child," she says.

The sharing of experiences is the key behind the group's empowering support. Mrs. Johnson says that by contributing their experiences, group participants not only educate each other, but reclaim their confidence through group feedback. "Sharing in the group makes you aware of talents you have that you didn't even know you had," she said.

Mrs. Johnson's children, Don, Chris and Vanessa Lapicki are now adults themselves and remain close to their mother. Vanessa says watching her mother's determination and tTC progress through P.A. has inspired a respect for human potential, including her own potential. "[Having grown up with people] who were working on their issues, . . . looking for answers, I know that there's always an answer. Something always happens -- you always find help somewhere," she says.

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