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Stress of Deployment Increases Risk of Child Abuse, Neglect in Military Families, UNC Study Shows

Rates of abuse and neglect of young children in military families in Texas has doubled since October 2002, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study shows, raising concerns about the impact of deployment on military personnel and their families across the country.

The study, published in the May 15, 2007 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, was designed by UNC School of Public Health researchers to measure the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on military and non-military families. The researchers chose to study Texas because of the large military population there and the availability of data.

Researchers found that prior to October 2002, rate of abuse and neglect called maltreatment was slightly higher among non-military families compared to military families. However, after the U.S. started sending larger numbers of troops to Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003, rates of abuse and neglect in military families far outpaced the rates among non-military families. Military files indicate more troops were deployed and fewer returned home in 2003.

In addition, the rate of occurrence of substantiated maltreatment in military families was twice as high in the period after October 2002 compared with the period prior to that date. During the same period, the rate of substantiated child abuse and neglect was relatively stable for non-military families, said Danielle Rentz, Ph.D., lead author of the study, which was part of her doctoral dissertation at the UNC School of Public Health.

Among soldiers with at least one dependent, for every one percent increase in the number of active duty soldiers departing or returning, we saw an approximately 30 percent increase in the rate of substantiated maltreatment cases, Rentz said. These findings indicate to us that both departures to and returns from operational deployment impose stresses on military families and likely increase the rate of child maltreatment.

State records showed that the majority of substantiated child abuse and neglect that occurred in military families was perpetrated by a parent, Rentz said. Before October 2002, the parent who was in the military was the perpetrator of abuse and neglect about equally as often as the non-military spouse. However, between October 2002 and June 2003, the non-military parent was found to have abused or neglected the children more often than the military parent.

The stress of war extends beyond the soldier to the family left behind, Rentz said.

Although family support services are available in each branch of military services to assist troops and their families in preparing for and coping with family separations, Rentz said, it appears that either families are not able to access the resources available to them during periods of high stress or the services alone cannot adequately respond to the needs of the families.

Some kind of additional intervention should be considered, she said. This might include providing more support and educational programs for family members remaining behind during separations, as well as increased monitoring of family function during stressful periods.

Rentz also noted that this study was conducted using population data. A limitation of this study is that it just used aggregate data on maltreatment and deployment. This study tells us only about population patterns. We did not study individual families she said. To fully understand what is happening within military families, we need more research on the topic that includes information about individual families. Also, its important to understand that this study was conducted only among active duty personnel. It doesn't reflect what may be occurring in families of National Guard and inactive reserves. These families may have less access to support services than families of active duty personnel have.

The primary data source for infor mation on child maltreatment were files for the state of Texas from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. The analyses were restricted to all substantiated cases of child maltreatment that were reported between January 1, 2000, and June 30, 2003, in Texas.

Finally, Rentz notes, child maltreatment may go undetected for years, and it is likely that some cases are never reported and investigated. Improved reporting and detection of child maltreatment in military families, rather than an increase in maltreatment, could also have caused the jump in maltreatment cases that we observed. However, there was no comparable jump in maltreatment in the civilian families over this time, which suggests that increased rate of deployment is the probable cause.

Rentz is currently an epidemic intelligence service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Co-authors on the paper include: Stephen W. Marshall, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at UNC School of Public Health and biostatistician at UNCs Injury Prevention Research Center; Dana Loomis, Ph.D., chair of the department of environmental and occupational health at the University of Nevada School of Public Health; Carri Casteel, Ph.D., research assistant professor of epidemiology at UNC School of Public Health and epidemiologist at UNCs Injury Prevention Research Center; Sandra L. Martin, Ph.D., professor of maternal and child health at the UNC School of Public Health; and Deborah A. Gibbs, adjunct assistant professor of maternal and child health at the UNC School of Public Health. Marshall, Martin, and Casteel are all closely associated with the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center. The study won a student prize award when it was presented at the Society for Epidemiologic Research last summer.


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