Mocha Moms: What's on the Table?

A new study suggests that children in military families with one parent deployed could be at greater risk for abuse and neglect. This week's Mocha Moms are joined by Deborah Gibbs, author of the study. The mothers also discuss New York City hospitals' decision to no longer provide new mothers with baby formula, in a move to support breast-feeding.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Just ahead, you'll hear a new spin on a venerated artist: Billy Holiday remixed, coming up.

But first it's time for our weekly visit with the Mocha Moms. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few Mocha Moms. Every week, we check in with members of this mother-support group for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. In a minute, I want the moms to weigh in on a conversation I had earlier about breastfeeding.

But before we do that, we want to talk about a new study appearing in the August 1st issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study, funded by the Army, is the first to take a comprehensive look at how deployment can affect the child's risk of mistreatment. It confirmed that incidents of child abuse and neglect significantly increased when a soldier parent was deployed on a combat tour.

To talk further about this, I'm joined by Deborah Gibbs, a senior health analyst for RTI International and the study's lead author. I'm also joined by Mocha Moms Jolene Ivey, Divina McFarland and Aisha Ortiz. Welcome, ladies.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Co-Founder, Mocha Moms): Hey, Michel.

Ms. DIVINA McFARLAND (Member, Mocha Moms): Thank you.

Ms. AISHA ORTIZ (Member, Mocha Moms): Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Deborah, if we could start with you. There are a lot of things that are associated with child abuse and neglect, you know, alcohol and drug use, isolation, things of that sort. So how was it clear that the combat tour was the defining factor leading to increase rates?

Ms. DEBORAH GIBBS (Senior Health Analyst, RTI International): We were able to compare the rates of abuse and neglect incidents within each family during the time when the family's soldier was deployed, compared to the times when the soldier wasn't deployed. And statistically what that meant is what we were comparing was just the effect of deployment.

MARTIN: Does the Army dispute your findings? Do they think that you're on to something here?

Ms. GIBBS: The Army has taken this very seriously. And I think it's important to understand that the Army funded this study and has been very supportive of our getting these results published. So they're absolutely working hard to get services to the families who need them.

MARTIN: Aisha, your husband is in the DC National Guard, active reserve, and he was deployed, I think, what, for a year and a half, I think?

Ms. ORTIZ: Yeah - to Iraq.

MARTIN: In Iraq - to Iraq. And how does this study strike you? I know he's been home. And let me just say, thank you for your service. And thank you and your husband for your service.

Ms. ORTIZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: Because I think you're all serving. And you too, Divina, because I know your family is also involved.

Ms. McFARLAND: Yes.

MARTIN: So let me just start with that. But how does this study strike you?

Ms. ORTIZ: I'm not surprised. Obviously, deployment is a stressful time for the parent as well as the children, because the children are dealing with their separation from that other parent, whether it be the mother or the father. More than anything though, from my experience, I think it comes down to the personality and basically a person's coping mechanism at that time, period, regardless of what that stress catalyst is.

MARTIN: We're told, I think, a lot of people have the view that the military is a tight-knit family, and that one has the impression that there are support systems in place. Do you find those…

Ms. ORTIZ: They're there.

MARTIN: …services not to be helpful or…

Ms. ORTIZ: They're there and they are helpful, but it takes a certain amount of go-get them, if you will, to be able to access those things and to get the help that you need. Like first you have to be able to assess that you indeed need help. And a lot of times, before a woman gets there, she's have already smacked her kid.

MARTIN: Is there a sense that your husband's career could be negatively affected if you are perceived as not coping well with his deployment?

Ms. ORTIZ: I don't think that they put you so much in an - group you so much like that. I mean, don't get it twisted. I do believe that a lot of your dirty laundry will air out. So it can be detrimental to your husband's career in the end. And so, yes, if I went over to the DC Armory and I started, oh I can't cope, or I want to cheat, or I'm beating my kids, yeah, it's going to leak out because we're dealing with humans. And that confidentiality thing…

MARTIN: Doesn't really, yeah.

Ms. ORTIZ: …not very strong.

MARTIN: Divina, you're caring for a nephew of your - your nephew.

Ms. McFARLAND: Mm hmm.

MARTIN: Your sister is deployed. She's in the Navy.

Ms. McFARLAND: My sister-in-law.

MARTIN: Sister-in-law. How does this study strike you?

Ms. McFARLAND: I can see how, you know, the stress of someone being away - the stress on the parent who's at home or the stress on the child. My nephew is older than Aisha's children. He was 12 when he came to us. And that was very hard. It was for him to be separated from his mother, and the way he coped with that stress was a lot of misbehavior.

MARTIN: Deborah, before we let you go - and thank you for talking to us about this - you said that the Army is taking it seriously, but in what sense? Are they suggesting that they're going to be more proactive in offering services? And what about the whole question of confidentiality and the fact that part of a soldier's evaluation is whether his family can cope in his absence?

Ms. GIBBS: What I know about the Army's response to this is that, one, they have already put in motion plans to have the family resource groups, which is a support group run by a paid professional rather than a volunteer. The second thing they've done is that the Army has already instructed its primary care physicians, all of its doctors, to pay attention to the parents that they see in their practice. This could be a parent that they see on a pediatric visit or in an adult care visit.

Depression is one way that some people will respond to stress and fear and loneliness, and it's also an enormous risk factor for child abuse neglect, particularly for child neglect. And that's where we saw the biggest increase in our data.

MARTIN: Deborah Gibbs is with RTI International. She joined us from her office in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. She was the lead author of this study, which was published in the August 1st issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. You can find a link to the study on our Web site.

Deborah, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. GIBBS: Thank you. My pleasure.

MARTIN: Today, we talked about breastfeeding. New York City hospitals are adopting a new policy of banning instant formula from their gift bags for new mothers.

Ms. ORTIZ: Yay!

Ms. McFARLAND: Yay!

MARTIN: Now that's a move they hope will encourage nursing and healthier babies. But I'm wondering of the effect on - I don't know, but you all said yay. So first of all, why don't you just tell me why you said yay?

Jolene, you said yay. Why yay?

Ms. IVEY: Well, if we're going to tell women that the healthiest thing they can do for themselves and for their newborn is to breastfeed them, why would we try to send them a second message with the formula?

MARTIN: What about - go ahead, Divina, you're (unintelligible).

Ms. McFARLAND: No, I 100 percent agree with Jolene. And here's the thing: You know, you send a new mom home with this crying baby that she doesn't know what to do with, not really, and she wants to try breastfeeding. She wants to do it. And it's 3 a.m. She's been home for 12 hours. She hasn't slept in probably 24 because she just gave birth, and oh my gosh, what am I going to do? Oh, I have this formula. Mix and pour. That's too easy. Breastfeeding is hard. And that's the truth. It is hard.

Ms. IVEY: At least in the beginning.

MARTIN: Does anybody wonder, though, about folks who are in limited incomes, folks who don't have these, you know, lactation experts…

Ms. McFARLAND: Right.

MARTIN: …who, you know…

Ms. McFARLAND: Let's talk about…

MARTIN: …your insurance may or may not pay for?

Ms. McFARLAND: Let's talk about income for a second. You know how much a formula cost? About $10 a can. Now, how long can that last you? Maybe four days on a newborn baby.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. McFARLAND: How much does breastfeeding cost? Nothing.

MARTIN: Right.

Ms. McFARLAND: Even if you have some sort of income supplement, like, you know, low-income women have WIC or whatever.

MARTIN: Like WIC, for example, supplements formula.

Ms. McFARLAND: Yeah, WIC will give you formula, but they don't sell you the bottles or the bottle cleaners…

MARTIN: Good point.

Ms. McFARLAND: …or the nipples and all that and other stuff.

MARTIN: I just wonder, though, about this whole thing of making it this competitive thing. I mean, I know all kinds of people who had difficulty breastfeeding, and they were made to feel like they were criminals.

Ms. McFARLAND: Yes.

MARTIN: And I just wonder whether this is yet another layer of, like, where you're - you start out of the box with this competitive thing.

Ms. McFARLAND: Trust me, you're wrong. Now, I don't say this as a - I breastfed two kids at once. Thank you all very much.

Ms. IVEY: (Unintelligible)

Ms. McFARLAND: I get the gold star.

Ms. IVEY: The normal thing, though…

MARTIN: Go ahead, Jolene.

Ms. IVEY: …should be to expect breastfeeding. It's - if there's something that's actually wrong that your doctor can diagnose and say, yes, you have a problem, well, that's when you start with formula. You don't send home a brand new mother with a brand new baby with a can of formula.

MARTIN: All right. Let's - we have to leave it there. Ladies, what I said, there. Break it down, issues. Way to break it down.

Ms. IVEY: But if you want to avoid allergies in the future for your kid…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: If you want to (unintelligible)…

Ms. McFARLAND: Wait, Jolene. You know…

MARTIN: That's just - don't fall off the soap box on your way out, honey. Don't fall. Don't fall down.

Ms. IVEY: And you know what? They're smarter, too, in the long run.

MARTIN: Okay. Mocha Moms Aisha Ortiz, Divina McFarland joined us from our studios here in Washington. Jolene Ivey joined us from her soapbox at member station WGBH in Boston. We were also joined earlier by Deborah A. Gibbs from RTI International. She joined us from her office in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. You can find links to our Mocha Moms and the study we talked about earlier at our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.

Mochas, moms, ladies, thanks again for joining us.

Ms. McFARLAND: Thank you.

Ms. IVEY: Thanks, Michel. Bye.

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