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Health & Parenting

At-War Soldiers' Kids Suffer at Home

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

"The Army has put a lot of money into adding more social workers and psychologists and psychiatrists to be available to our families, particularly with the levels of depression we are beginning to see," Johnson says. "We think we have the right programs in place. The chief of staff and the secretary [of defense] with their infusion of dollars are saying we are there for families. This means we are adding more home visitors to our new-parent support, and making more of a move for child care to give parents a break, in addition to other services we have available."

The current study does not address another problem for military families -- the stress of returning veterans with physical or psychological problems.

"What we know is, if they come home with a war-related psychological disorder such as PTSD, there is a substantial increase in risk for additional family conflict such as domestic violence or emotional problems with the children," Fairbank says. "The unknown is of how this will play out in terms of the newer aspects of this war -- such as high rates of traumatic brain injury -- and what risk this will pose for child maltreatment. So it is very important for these issues to be addressed now, both by providing services and by studying what is going on so we can learn from it."

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