The ongoing U.S. war on terrorism continues to strain military service members and their families. A study published in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that deployments have resulted in increased rates of child abuse and neglect.
The research team from RTI International and the University of North Carolina found that among military families with at least one such incident of child maltreatment, a parent's deployment increased the likelihood that further maltreatment would occur.
Allyson and Chris Erving know how difficult family life can be during deployment. When they try to get their 2-year-old daughter Mackenzy to bed, she squirms on her father's lap and says "no" when asked if she'll go upstairs. Chris Erving likes being home and helping out with the kids.
But for 15 months when Chris Erving was deployed to Iraq with the National Guard, he couldn't help. Allyson stayed at their new home in Garner, N.C., with their two children. While Chris was away, Allyson had their third child. She says it became tough to cope.
"Depression set in," Allyson says. "Just dealing with everyday life by yourself, and I know there's a lot of single parents out there, but it's so much different than that, because you have a husband or a loved one over in a war zone and not knowing what's gonna happen."
Erving says she got by because of a support group. But she understands how some military spouses crack under the strain of lengthening deployments.
"You never can prepare yourself for it," she says, "but you like to think you can."
The study published in the Aug. 1, 2007, issue of JAMA shows that some military spouses don't do as well as Erving. The Army commissioned the study, and it examined all confirmed reports of abuse and neglect collected by the Army from Sept. 11, 2001, through the end of 2004.
Sandra Martin, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is one of the study's authors. Martin says that overall, rates of maltreatment of children in military families is low. But during deployment, rates jump, outstripping civilian abuse rates.
"We found that their rate of maltreatment increased three times, and it was especially likely to increase for the child neglect," Martin says. "It was four times higher, the neglect, during the deployment than non-deployment. And physical abuse was almost twice as high."
The researchers identified about 3,300 confirmed cases of abuse or neglect in 1,800 families. Two-thirds of the incidents were moderate to severe — the vast majority were neglect.
"You leave them alone when they're too young to be left alone," says UNC researcher Sandra Martin. "You don't feed them properly, you don't clothe them properly, you don't keep them clean, you don't send them to school, you medically don't take care of their needs."
Lead author Deborah Gibbs from research organization RTI International says incidence is greatest among parents left behind by a deploying soldier.
"The increase is substantial for civilian female parents," Gibbs says. "For them, the rate of child maltreatment was more than three times greater during times of soldier deployments compared to times of non-deployment."
Brown University anthropologist Catherine Lutz says she's not surprised at the results. She has studied military culture on and around military bases, and says that the Army addresses symptoms of the issue but not the problem.
"The risk factors are military culture itself," Lutz says. "[It] values violence, teaches that violence works, that it's often necessary, you'll get rewarded for it, that it's morally righteous in many cases. Obviously military culture doesn't say that you should beat your children. At all. But it does in general, you know, encourage violence as a technique."
While military leaders say there are plenty of services available to family members, Lutz thinks the response to domestic violence in the military is usually inadequate.
"We know that in the case of spousal violence that the military doesn't take the problem as seriously as it takes the problem of retaining its very expensive soldiers that cost between $100,000 and $500,000 to train," Lutz says.
Col. Ben Clark helps direct family programs for the Army at the Pentagon. He says the Army does a pretty good job of supporting soldiers' families.
"We have an array of behavioral health programs," Clark says. "That includes anywhere from counseling services, normal health services, and all of our medical treatment facilities throughout the Army. And we also have in the Army community service centers in every installation throughout the Army."
Clark points out that more enlisted soldiers are married with families than before. In the Vietnam War, about one-third of Army soldiers were married. Now that number is greater than half.
"When you look at the demographics of the military couple, we have a young population that we serve," Clark says. "So you have an 18, 21-year-old who may have two or three babies, who is still trying to find their way through the web of being a parent."
Clark says the Army provides a lot of parenting classes and other prevention services. In addition, all Army doctors in clinics that serve military families have been instructed to screen spouses and family members of deployed soldiers for depression.
Study author Gibbs says the literature on child maltreatment shows that depression is a risk factor for child abuse and neglect.
Clark and the researchers all admit the study probably misses some cases of abuse. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, and Army officials say they welcome the research – it is the first time they have been able to get a handle on the scope of the problem. And they say the data could be useful in making the case for beefing up family support services.
Rose Hoban reports from North Carolina Public Radio.