The rate of child abuse in U.S. Army families who are prone to such maltreatment rises significantly when the soldiers are deployed for combat, researchers reported.
Most of this increase is attributable to civilian wives of the Army enlisted personnel.
Their rates of inflicting moderate to severe child abuse and neglect are nearly four times higher when their husbands are deployed on combat-related duties than when their husbands are not deployed, reported Deborah A. Gibbs of RTI International, an independent research institute in Research Triangle Park, N.C., and her associates.
Clinicians in communities with military populations should be aware of this added stressor, and of the need for enhanced support for these families, the investigators noted.
Ms. Gibbs and her associates linked information from two confidential U.S. Army databases to study substantiated incidents of child maltreatment among 1,771 families of enlisted soldiers worldwide from 2001 through 2004. Maltreatment included incidents of neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse.
The researchers emphasized that they restricted their study to army families known to have at least one substantiated report of child abuse, and did not assess army families in general. There were 3,334 separate incidents of abuse against 2,968 children during the 40-month study period. Boys and girls were abused in approximately equal numbers.
The rate of maltreatment was 42% higher during periods of deployment than during times when the soldiers were not deployed. The severity of abuse also increased during deployment, and the rate of incidents involving multiple types of abuse was “quite elevated” during deployment, the investigators said (JAMA 2007;298:528-35).
Rates of child abuse were much higher for civilian mothers than for civilian fathers married to soldiers, “suggesting that these two groups may be different in terms of the stress that they experience during their spouses' deployment, how they cope with such stress, or how they mobilize resources such as assistance with child care,” Ms. Gibbs and her associates said.
Child abuse rates also were markedly higher in white families than in black or Hispanic families. “This difference may reflect racial-ethnic patterns in factors that are potentially related to the stress associated with soldier deployments, such as civilian parent employment or use of formal and informal support services,” they noted.
The study findings indicate that supportive and preventive services for army families are particularly important during times of deployment, they said.