Fallout From the War at Home

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John Davenport / San Antonio Express-News / ZUMA

A National Guard member spends a quiet moment with his wife and infant son before deploying to Iraq.

There is no doubt that war claims casualties of the innocent. But injury is not expected among those far from the war zone. A new study in the Aug. 1 issue of the Journal of American Medical Association reveals that many of those who suffer from armed conflict are living within the homes that deployed soldiers leave behind.

Rates of neglect and abuse of the children of servicemen and women rose 42% within the family when the enlisted parent was deployed on a combat mission, according to a new study led by senior health analyst Deborah Gibbs of RTI International, a research institute in North Carolina. Previous studies have shown an association between combat-related deployments and higher levels of stress in the family, and it is this stress that is thought to play a major role in the maltreatment of children by the parent who stays home.

The current study is the first to take a comprehensive look at how deployment affects child neglect and emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Backed by funding from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, the researchers harvested data from the U.S. Army Central Registry of 1,771 families worldwide with at least one instance of child neglect or abuse between Sept. 2001 and Dec. 2004, a period during which many soldiers were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. The results show that a staggering 1,858 parents had maltreated their children during that period — boys and girls in equal numbers, with an average age of 6. Nearly 10% of those parents neglected or abused their children on more than one day. The number of times a parent was deployed, however, whether once or twice, did not significantly affect the rate of maltreatment — researchers speculate that by the time of a soldier's second tour of duty, the homebound parent has developed at least few coping strategies.

The study suggests that Mom is the one taking it out on the kids. During the deployment of her soldier-husband, rates of child maltreatment tripled; neglect quadrupled; and physical abuse nearly doubled. "Female spouses are the ones that stay at home when soldiers are deployed," says Gibbs. "They deal with the stress of single parenting, worrying about a spouse and holding down a job as well. We recognize that military families do an amazing job at getting though these situations that are tougher than many of us could ever imagine." Abusive women were more likely to be Caucasian than Hispanic or black, suggesting that there may be differences in the way white mothers cope with stress compared with black or Hispanic moms; the study's authors write that the racial difference may have to do with the mother's employment status or her willingness to ask for outside help. In contrast, male spouses showed no increase in maltreatment when their wives were deployed.

The study controlled for characteristics often linked to child maltreatment — such as substance abuse, socioeconomic status and age of the children —making it evident that deployment was the determining factor.

"Army families certainly know how stressful deployments are — better than any of us," says Gibbs. "I don't want any army family to feel like we're suggesting that they're more likely to experience abuse and neglect than other families." No studies have looked at other branches of the military in the same way, says Gibbs.

Government statistics note that in 2004, 1.1 million children (under the age of 18) were maltreated in enlisted soldiers' families. Gibbs and colleagues cite another soon-to-be-published study that found "the rates of neglect in U.S. Army families increased sharply between 2001 and 2004, reversing a decade-long downward trend."

"We certainly aren't surprised that neglect would be the type of abuse that would go up," says Dolores Johnson, director of the Family Advocacy Program for the Army, "because we have extended periods of separation of parents, and when that occurs our own analysis indicates that child neglect is likely to rise." Johnson says that the study reveals that continuous deployment, of 12 to 18 months, is causing families to feel "a certain degree of strain."

"The stay-at-home parent certainly begins to feel that pinch, either in forms of depression or neglect situations," says Johnson. "Even though [these families] are resilient, I think that they know that these deployments are taking a toll."

According to Johnson, the Army has invested more than $100 million this year in networks of programs to help the parent at home — particularly young mothers — deal with stressful parenting issues, from changing diapers to calming crying babies, with the help of nurses, counselors, chaplains, social workers and army community service staff. Some of that assistance, from phone counseling to in-person guidance, can be found through MyArmyLifeToo.com. Johnson says that the message the Army hopes this study will convey is "that families that know about these services make a special effort to tell their friends and neighbors about what is available, so that [other] families don't feel so isolated and overwhelmed by the situation that they're in."