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At-War Soldiers' Kids Suffer at Home

Child Neglect, Abuse: One Cost of Long, Repeated Military Deployments

Tip of Military Child Neglect/Abuse Iceberg? continued...

The study looked only at families with reported episodes of child maltreatment. Four times as many children likely are affected, as only about 25% of cases of child neglect or abuse actually is reported, says John Fairbank, PhD, co-director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, sponsored by the U.S. Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration.

"This could be the tip of an iceberg," Fairbank tells WebMD. "There are probably many more Army families out there suffering. And other members of the armed forces, such as the Army Reserve and National Guard, are much more isolated than are those on military bases. ... This really is a problem we need to be addressing thoughtfully and carefully and urgently."

The Army's Johnson disagrees with the tip-of-the-iceberg analogy, although she says maltreatment of children in military families has become "much more common than it had been before." And Johnson says the findings of the Gibbs study remain relevant today.

"I don't think a snapshot taken today would be different from the 2001-2004 period in the study. We would see same level of neglect," she says. "This is something we were able to detect in our own research analyses. It has highlighted the impact of continuous deployment on our soldiers and our families."

Help for Military Families

The problem of child maltreatment is solved not by punishing families but by helping them, says child-protection expert Lane.

"There should be an assessment of the family: Are there risks in addition to the fact the parent is deployed? Is it just increased stress -- or could there be lack of social support? Could there be substance use or abuse? Could it be financial?" Lane says. "You work with the family to find out what kind of support the family needs to avoid future neglect -- and give parents better skills so the child is safe."

The U.S. Army is doing just that, Johnson says.

"The question we are addressing is, do we have a way of picking up on these families at risk and following them as the baby develops?" Johnson says. "We have a 24/7 help line families can call to ask for in-depth counseling support. We have new-parent support programs that are especially helpful with the areas that generate most concern, such as feeding. We have a special-emphasis effort on 'do not shake babies.' And then we have a normal range of parenting classes."

Sometimes, however, a family's problems are deeper than simple lack of support or know-how.

"The deeper problem might be something more serious. For example, a parent may have depression that needs to be treated, in which case you have to make a referral to a mental health specialist," Lane says.

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