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In Army enlisted families with at least one incident of child abuse in their pasts, children are far more likely to be abused during deployments, researchers say.
The type of abuse is likely to be neglect at the hands of their mothers, according to a study published in the Aug. 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers at RTI International and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health.
The study reviewed Army families with at least one substantiated report of child abuse, and also had at least one combat-related deployment in the 40-month period from September 2001 to December 2004. Within those 1,771 families, the rate of child abuse during deployments was 42 percent higher than when a soldier was not deployed.
The researchers included only enlisted families; the 49 deployed officer families with incidents of child abuse in the data match were deemed too few to draw conclusions.
"The greatest increase we see during deployments is ... in child neglect," a category of child abuse, said Deborah Gibbs, a senior health analyst at RTI and lead author of the study, funded by the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.
Civilian mothers committed child abuse during the time the soldier-husbands were deployed at a rate three times greater than when they weren't deployed. The rate of child neglect was four times greater.
For male civilian parents, rates of child abuse showed no change during deployments, researchers noted, suggesting differences between the two groups in how they deal with stress or how they pull together resources to help them during deployments.
"To me, this report raised more questions than answers, especially [about] the neglect," said Joyce Raezer, chief operating officer of the National Military Family Association.
"Are we talking about an 8-year-old left alone for an hour after school? Are we talking about an 8-year-old left at home alone for an hour or two while mom takes the 7-year-old to the doctor? Unless we know, we don't know what programs need to be beefed up, and what resources need to be put where.
"That's what I hope is the next step," she said. "We do not know what specifically needs to be addressed. Then when we do put money into programs, we need to look at whether the numbers related to child neglect go down."
The study's recommendations, Raezer said, "are nothing new."
Researchers called for more support for families, including developing services that at-risk parents will be likely to seek out, and more outreach to connect parents to these services.
By press time, Army officials had not commented on whether they are taking any actions as a result of the research. But officials have taken steps in recent years, including increasing the availability of child care at deployed bases and setting up toll-free and online 24-hour help through Military OneSource along with on-post family support and beefing up support staff for families in deployed units.
Gibbs cautioned that this study does not prove deployments cause child abuse, nor does anyone know that for sure.
"The large majority of families who are deployed do not experience child abuse," she said. "But in this relatively small group, the rates are much higher during deployment. Within every population there are those who are vulnerable, and this kind of added stress will hit them hard."
Researchers noted that their restricted comparison prevents them from estimating the risk of child abuse during combat-related deployments for all Army families.
About 81 percent of child abuse incidents during deployments were neglect, and about 10 percent were physical abuse. The rate of child abuse during deployment was greater for white mothers than for those who were black or Hispanic. About 71 percent of the child abuse incidents reviewed in the study involved children ages 2 to 12, whether the abuse happened during deployment or when the soldier was home.
When the soldier was home, the percentage of physical abuse incidents increased to 19 percent, and the soldier committed about 59 percent of the incidents during periods at home.
Ed McCarroll, director of the family violence and trauma project for the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at Uniformed Services University School of Medicine, said this study is consistent with his own findings showing that the rates of child neglect in Army families increased sharply between 2001 and 2004, reversing a decade-long downward trend.
His research, which is in the process of being published, does not link the incidents of child neglect directly to deployments, he said.
The Army will use the results of this Army-funded study, along with other surveys and data, to identify trends, inform senior leaders, further enhance programs and implement new initiatives, said Army spokeswoman Maj. Cheryl Phillips.
In July, Secretary of the Army Pete Geren and Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey Jr. directed that $100 million be immediately applied to family readiness programs Army-wide. Also, the Army in July directed that more than 1,000 additional family readiness support assistants be hired to help families — more than 700 for active-duty units, 181 for Army Reserve units and 127 for Army National Guard units.
Phillips noted that garrison commanders have authority to implement expanded services as needed for their communities. Examples include reduced fees and extended child and youth services both on and off post. More than 50 programs and activities that support Army families are scheduled for expansion or implementation in the coming months, she said.
In addition, Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, chief of the Army Medical Command, has called for more emphasis among medical providers to more aggressively screen spouses for signs and symptoms associated with clinical depression.
According to statistics provided by McCarroll, the number of substantiated Army child abuse cases per 1,000 children gradually increased from 5.2 in 2001 to 6.2 in 2004. Since then, the rate has dropped to 4.9 last year.
The Marine Corps and Air Force had upward blips in child abuse in 2004, but the Navy did not. All services report a decrease in substantiated child abuse cases since 2001 — with the Marine Corps' cases dropping by more than half, from 8.05 per 1,000 children to 3.95.
Gibbs said she would like to study Marine Corps data on child abuse, as well as the situation with National Guard and reserve families, which were not included in this research.
"It's entirely possible that reserve and Guard families experience at least as much stress, without access to services that active-duty families have," she said, providing "reasons to be concerned" on "so many more levels."
Raezer is concerned that most of the research focuses on families living on base. "As bad as these numbers seem, I think they're worse for people living out in the community," she said, though acknowledging that she has nothing to support that, other than "experience and knowledge of the communities."
"There are a lot more eyes on an installation to see when you're not doing something right with your kids," she said, which may artificially depress the real data.
The military's first reaction to such an issue, she said, is usually to "beef up programs on installations ... we need to make sure resources are not just for those who live on installations."
In the 1,771 families studied, 1,858 parents committed child abuse; in some cases, more than one parent abused the children. Some 3,334 incidents against 2,968 different children occurred during the period studied..