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At-War Soldiers' Kids Suffer at Home

Child Neglect, Abuse: One Cost of Long, Repeated Military Deployments
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 31, 2007 - There's a hidden cost to today's long military deployments -- a price paid by soldiers' children.

That cost: Children in single-mother military households are much more likely to suffer neglect and abuse during deployments.

Research Triangle Institute researcher Deborah A. Gibbs, MSPH, and colleagues report the findings in the Aug. 1 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

"The overall rate of child maltreatment is 42% higher during soldier deployment than during other times. The increase occurred both for mild and for moderate-to-severe maltreatment," Gibbs tells WebMD. "Not surprisingly, this results from much higher rates of maltreatment by female civilian parents, because they are the ones left at home most often."

During deployments, the children of left-at-home moms were four times more likely to suffer neglect and nearly twice as likely to suffer physical abuse.

"The surprising finding was that the effect of deployment was so consistent," Gibbs says. "Just about any way we could divide the population, we found increased rates of child maltreatment during deployment. We looked at pay grade, rank, single or multiple deployments, whether the family lives on or off post -- all showed increases."

This isn't happening because the left-at-home moms are terrible mothers -- it's happening because they are mothers stressed to the breaking point, says Wendy Lane, MD, MPH, chairwoman of the child protection team at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

"The parents who do this are not bad people. This is the case in most situations of abuse and neglect," Lane tells WebMD. "People want to do the right things for their kids, but often there are stressors that keep them from doing what they want to do."

The main stressor is the "impact of continuous deployment on our soldiers and families," says Delores Johnson, director of family programs for the U.S. Army's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command.

"Because of the continuous deployment of troops, this is much more common than it had been before," Johnson tells WebMD. "We know that neglect tends to increase during deployments, although we have not seen these high rates before. This seems to be coming from families dealing with back-to-back and extended deployments. Mothers are functioning very much alone and dealing with schedules and new babies and all the demands that go with that."

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."

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