Child Maltreatment Rises in Homes of Soldiers Sent to War

TUESDAY July 31, 2007 -- A U.S. Army-sponsored study finds that children of enlisted soldiers are more likely to be abused or neglected when a parent is deployed to a combat zone.

The findings point to the need for more support services at home, the study authors said.

"The practical implication is that child maltreatment incidents are much more likely to occur during soldier deployments than during other times, and this really underlines the necessity of formal and informal support for parents who are going through this," said Deborah A. Gibbs, lead author of the study and a senior analyst with the Children and Families Program at RTI International in Research Triangle Park, N.C. "Our findings really put a number on the extent of the problem and suggest the areas in which supports are most necessary."

The study is published in the Aug. 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, a theme issue on violence and human rights.

U.S. Army support of the study should give the issue of child abuse in general even more of a spotlight, experts said.

"The fact that the military is taking an interest is going to be helpful for the whole nation," said Dr. Rachel Bramson, associate professor of family and community medicine with the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine and the Scott & White Clinic in College Station, Texas. "A lot of times if you have an organization of complexity with the degree of resources and the appropriate interest in their employee and family health, then you can bring about greater social change," she added.

U.S. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Ben Clark is deputy director of family programs, Family Advocacy Program, Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command. Responding to the study, he said, "What they [the researchers] see is pretty consistent with what we see. We see an increase of neglect cases when we have large deployments. We're getting resources to help with that."

Deployment of a parent results in added stress, particularly to the parent left behind. Stress, in turn, is thought to play a role in child maltreatment, including neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse.

In 2004, there were more than 1.1 million American military families with children younger than 18.

Although there is not a long history of research in this field, previous studies have found that children of parents in the U.S. military serving in Iraq and elsewhere have higher blood pressure, heart rates and stress levels than other youngsters, and that children from military families are twice as likely to die from severe abuse as other children are.

Gibbs and her colleagues looked at confirmed incidents of child maltreatment by a parent in 1,771 families of enlisted U.S. Army soldiers who had been deployed to combat at least once between September 2001 and December 2004.

In total, 1,858 parents in these families had maltreated their children. The overall rate of child maltreatment was 42 percent higher during the times when the soldier-parents were deployed, compared to when they weren't deployed.

Moderate or severe maltreatment was 61 percent higher during deployment periods as compared to non-deployment periods.

While rates of child neglect were nearly double during deployment, the rate of physical abuse was less.

The rate of maltreatment by female civilian spouses was more than triple during times of deployment. Male civilians had a higher rate of maltreatment during these periods, but not significantly so, the study found.

The rate of child neglect by civilian female spouses was nearly four times the rate at other times.

"When people are stressed, there's a much higher likelihood of abuse. It's true of any situation," Bramson said. "Also, most abusers were themselves abused. The key is preventing abuse, so you don't raise kids who are going to go on to be abusers. Luckily, there's more interest in trying to create community interventions. One of the major things is awareness, and that's why I'm excited about this coming from the military. That's going to get some attention."

Among the themed issue's other reports:

  • Almost 40 percent of Nepalese sex-trafficked girls and women, many forced into prostitution, who were repatriated tested positive for HIV infection.
  • Group psychotherapy helped reduce depression among displaced adolescent girls who had survived war in northern Uganda. The interventions were less effective among adolescent boys.
  • Former Ugandan and Congolese child soldiers who have more symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are less likely to be open to reconciliation and are more likely to have feelings of revenge.
  • Adults displaced by war in northern Uganda have high rates of PTSD and depression. They are also more likely to favor violent means to end the conflict, compared to people without comparable symptoms.

More information

Visit Prevent Child Abuse America for more on this issue.

Posted: July 2007


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