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Health & Parenting

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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?

Gibbs and colleagues studied reported cases of child maltreatment in 1,771 families of enlisted U.S. Army soldiers deployed at least once between September 2001 and December 2004. During these deployments, more than 80% of the cases of maltreatment were due to child neglect. Over two-thirds of these cases were reported as moderate or severe.

"An example of a mild child neglect case would be the parent's lapse in supervision of a child that did not meet the army's criteria for leaving children alone but which did not result in any harm and was not blatantly inappropriate -- such as leaving an 8-year-old home for a short period of time," Gibbs says. "A severe case of child neglect would be more along the lines of a parent not providing supervision to a young child for an extended period of time, not meeting the child's basic needs for food, or not maintaining a livable household."

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."

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