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Child Abuse Increases When Soldier Parent Is Deployed


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. -- Things may not be all quiet on the home front. When soldiers deploy for combat, child abuse and neglect increase as does stress for the spouses left behind, researchers here said.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C., July 31 -- Things may not be all quiet on the home front. When soldiers deploy for combat, child abuse and neglect increase as does stress for the spouses left behind, researchers here said.

Substantiated reports of child maltreatment in Army families were 42% to 61% more likely to occur during deployment than when soldier-parents were at home, according to a study of an Army database reported in the Aug. 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The increase was attributed primarily to civilian women, who were three times more likely to abuse and four times more likely to neglect their children when their husband was on active duty, found Deborah A. Gibbs, of RTI International, a non-profit research firm, and colleagues in a study of an Army database.

The reason may be "that the deployment of a soldier often places much additional stress on the parent remaining behind," they wrote.

Two prior studies had suggested that child maltreatment, defined as neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse, increased during major military operations.

To get more defined data on the subject, the researchers analyzed linked data from the Army Central Registry and human resources on cases substantiated by its Family Advocacy Program based on its definitions and criteria.

During the period from September 11, 2001, through 2004, there were 1,858 parents in 1,771 Army families who maltreated 2,968 individual children (mean age, six).

Among these 3,334 incidents, 28% occurred while a soldier-parent was deployed for combat.

In an unadjusted analysis, child maltreatment was 1.42-fold more likely to occur during a parent's deployment (95% confidence interval 1.31 to 1.54).

The relative risks for each type of maltreatment during deployment versus nondeployment adjusted for family-specific risk periods were:

  • 1.95 for neglect (95% CI 1.77 to 2.14).
  • 0.76 for physical abuse (95% CI 0.58 to 0.93).
  • 0.31 for emotional abuse (95% CI 0.19 to 0.43).
  • 1.07 for sexual abuse (95% CI 0.47 to 1.66).

Among the incidents overall, 67.7% of those during deployment versus 59.4% not during deployment were categorized as putting the child at moderate to severe risk of (RR 1.61, 95% CI 1.45 to 1.77).

The risk appeared to be significant during deployment only with non-Hispanic white parents (RR 1.80, 95% CI 1.62 to 1.98).

The risk was three times higher during deployment when the civilian spouse was female (RR 3.33, 95% CI 2.98 to 3.67), whereas the risk was elevated but not significantly so for male spouses (RR 1.36, 95% CI 0.90 to 1.82).

Women were four times more likely to neglect their children during their husbands' deployment than at other times (RR 3.88, 95% CI 3.43 to 4.34). For physical abuse, the relative risk was almost doubled (RR 1.91, 95% CI 1.33 to 2.49).

The gender differences suggest that men and women may experience and cope with the stress of their spouses' deployment differently or that they may differ in how they use supportive resources, such as childcare assistance, the researchers noted.

Although Gibbs and colleagues noted that their findings were not entirely unexpected, they urged caution in interpreting them.

The investigation was limited to combat-related deployments and abuse by parents. They warned that the results may not be generalizable to abuse by other family members or for non-combat duty.

Also, because the comparisons were restricted to families with substantiated child maltreatment during the study period, they could not estimate the risk for all Army families, they added.

"To address this question, families of soldiers would have to be followed up prospectively through periods of deployment and nondeployment to directly compare the risks of child maltreatment," they wrote.

Although noting that the Army does provide childcare, support groups, and other services for families, Gibbs and colleagues said the findings suggest that more may be needed during periods of deployment.

This may include "enhanced support for civilian parents in terms of additional resources, more effective services, development of services that those parents at greatest risk will be likely to seek out and accept, and greater outreach to connect parents to services," they concluded.

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