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Deployments raise risk of child abuse, research concludes

Mothers stressed and depressed, federal study says

CHICAGO -- Children in some Army families are vulnerable to abuse and neglect by their mothers when their fathers are away at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a large Pentagon-funded study finds.

Mothers were three times more likely to have a substantiated report of child mistreatment when their soldier husbands were deployed than when the fathers were home, according to the research.

Mothers at home were nearly four times as likely to neglect their children and nearly twice as likely to physically abuse them during deployment periods.

"She leaves the young child alone in the apartment, doesn't get the child off to school in the morning, doesn't keep the house in a livable condition," said lead author Deborah Gibbs of RTI International, describing typical scenarios. RTI is a nonprofit based in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Army officials said the study confirms what they have seen at large military bases for nearly two years: overwhelmed and depressed mothers neglecting their children.

"This is another recognition of the stress that families are experiencing with multiple deployments, and that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone," said Rene Robichaux, social work programs manager for US Army Medical Command.

The Army recently announced it will hire more than 1,000 additional "family readiness support assistants" to help families of deployed active duty, Army Reserve, and National Guard units.

The Army also recently added $8 million to its respite child-care program and increased home visits to parents of young children at the 13 bases with the highest rates of neglect, said Delores Johnson, the Army's director of family programs.

The study appears in today's Journal of the American Medical Association.

Army staff reviewed the manuscript before its submission to the medical journal.

The researchers analyzed information from two large Army databases from 2001 through 2004.

Since then, the pace of deployments has increased, making the findings even more important, Gibbs said.

Only families with at least one report of child mistreatment were part of the analysis, so the findings apply only to families with some underlying risk.

The researchers found reports of abuse and neglect for nearly 3,000 individual children. The mistreatment included neglect, abandonment, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

Women accounted for about nine out of 10 incidents by civilian parents during deployments.

For fathers at home while their wives were at war, the effect of deployment on the likelihood of abuse or neglect was insignificant, suggesting men may be more likely to get help from extended family or other resources, Gibbs said.

Overall, the study of almost 1,800 Army families worldwide found that reports of child abuse and neglect were 42 percent higher during times when the soldier parent, regardless of gender, was deployed.

Specialists cautioned that situations that are not generally considered neglect by most city child-welfare workers would be called neglect by Army social workers. Robichaux, a former Houston child welfare worker, said Army families tend to get help sooner than civilian families.

Two previous studies have found increasing rates of child neglect in Army families between 2001 and 2004 and increasing rates of child mistreatment in Texas military families during a time of large-scale deployments.

The new study was hailed by a researcher involved in the Texas study.

"It is important, especially given the current military and political situation, in which deployment occurs more frequently and deployments can be longer," said Danielle Rentz, an epidemiologist for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Stacy Bannerman, a member of the antiwar group Military Families Speak Out and the wife of a National Guardsman who fought in Iraq, said she's seen mothers neglect their children while their husbands are in Iraq.

"We pretend the trauma of war can somehow be isolated and contained," Bannerman said.

"Nobody's really taking care of the caregivers."