When a military parent is deployed to a combat zone, the children left behind might be plagued by more than frightening dreams and aching hearts.
A new study funded by the U.S. Army found that child abuse and neglect was about 40 percent higher in Army households during combat-related deployment than during nondeployment – and that civilian mothers are significantly more likely to mistreat children than civilian fathers.
Researchers in North Carolina tracked nearly 1,800 Army families with at least one substantiated incident of “child maltreatment” through periods of deployment and nondeployment from 2001 to 2004.
The study, one of the first to examine child mistreatment in military families during deployment, found that the rate of physical abuse by female civilian parents was nearly twice as great during times of deployment. The rate of child neglect by civilian mothers was nearly four times higher during deployments.
However, the rate of child mistreatment was not significantly elevated for male civilian parents during deployment.
Deborah A. Gibbs, lead author of the study and a senior analyst with RTI International, an independent, nonprofit research institute in North Carolina, said the report was part of a study of family violence in the military.
The child mistreatment portion emerged when many soldiers were being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, Gibbs said.
“It’s easy to imagine that deployments would increase stress on the parent who is left behind.”
Gibbs said moderate to severe mistreatment of children was about 60 percent higher during deployment.
She said the ratings of moderate and severe mistreatment depend both on the risk of harm to the child and the actual harm. For example, mild abuse could be inappropriate discipline; severe abuse could be an action that results in significant injury.
Gibbs said the findings were generally consistent across age, rank and ethnic groups.