Child Abuse, Neglect Tied to Military Deployment


Having a soldier as a parent can be a source of great pride and encouragement for a child. However, recent research suggests that army deployment may be associated with higher levels of neglect and abuse. More specifically, young children of army soldiers, particularly those aged two and below, appear to be unusually susceptible to abuse and neglect during the deployment of a parent soldier, as well as shortly thereafter.  

A Possible Epidemic  

Admirable though their work may be, it is also a source of tremendous stress, according to Dr. Bob Sege, vice president of Health Resources in Action in Boston and a pediatrician specializing in child abuse. “The findings are not that surprising because a family experiences enormous stress when a soldier goes off on a deployment,” he told Health Day. “The men and women who go off to fight for us are doing very admirable work, and it’s not a surprise that it’s stressful for their families.” The results of this study, published online in the American Journal of Public Health on Nov. 12, are particularly solemn in light of the fact that almost half of the over 2.1 million Americans who have been deployed to international conflicts since 2001, are parents.   

The Source Is Stress  

Dr. Sege argues that the theories may support the family stress theory of child abuse, according to which family stress is its cause. “That’s important because I think many people feel that people who maltreat their children are morally deficient,” he said. “But, those of us in the field know that often, they’re just really stressed out beyond their capacity to deal with their situation.” The results of the study are far from conclusive, however, as the only fact the study demonstrates is a correlation between family stress and child maltreatment; it does not definitively pinpoint the causal relationship between the variables.  

Disturbing Demographics  

The researchers confirmed the presence of general abuse, physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, head trauma and shaken baby syndrome in over 112,000 deployed soldiers between the ages of 2001 and 2007, including approximately 0.5 percent of the children. Rates were highest during and shortly after deployment relative to the six months prior. Rates were higher during and just after deployment compared to the six months before deployment, with children whose parents were deployed once suffering almost four episodes of abuse or neglect per 10,000 children per month at the time of deployment, as opposed to only three episodes of abuse in the six months prior to deployment. Six months after deployment, the rate increased to an astounding 4.5 episodes per 10,000 children, with families of army soldiers deployed twice reaching the highest rates of abuse and neglect in the month prior to the second deployment, increasing to a rate of almost five episodes per 10,000 children per month.  

Who Is Responsible?  

In 88 percent of the incidents of child abuse occurring during deployment, it was the non-soldier caregiver who was responsible for the abuse. However, following the deployment, the soldier was responsible over half of the time. The likely source of the stress which leads to this abuse is the separation, isolation, relocation, and long periods of absence on the part of soldier caregivers. According to Mayra Mendez, program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, this increases the stress which appears to result in child abuse. Dr. Sege emphasizes the need for support that this research reveals. “The social connection with other people in similar circumstances can be incredibly protective against child maltreatment,” he said. “Now the military can look at the whole family when a soldier is deployed and has the opportunity to keep a watch out for families that are in need. It offers the military a real chance to help.”