Army wives whose husbands are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have committed markedly higher rates of child neglect and abuse than when their spouses are home, according to a study Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The Army-funded study found child neglect was almost four times greater during periods when the husbands were at war. Physical child abuse was nearly twice as high during combat deployments.
"Deployment … has been associated with increased stress among non-deployed parents, which may hamper their ability to appropriately care for their children," the study said.
Child neglect can result from inappropriate supervision, says Deborah Gibbs, the study's lead author and a senior analyst at RTI International, a North Carolina research center. It also includes failing to meet a child's basic needs, such as nourishment and sanitation. Abuse can include physical harm.
Researchers examined reports of abuse and neglect within 1,771 families of Army enlisted soldiers with nearly 3,000 children. Researchers had scant data on husbands with spouses at war; 94% of the cases of abuse and neglect involved Army wives at home.
The reports were collected by the Army's Family Advocacy Program, which works to prevent family violence. The cases occurred between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2004. The largest single group of victims was children ages 2-12.
"The evidence is pretty strong that combat-related deployments" spurred the increase, Gibbs says.
"Having been through two deployments myself, I won't deny there have been nights where I have sat in agony because I snapped at my own two children for nothing," says Tera Brockway, whose husband is stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y.
The study results are consistent with previous research showing that child neglect within the Army increased sharply after 9/11, reversing a decade-long downward trend. A May report by the University of North Carolina showed similar abuse and neglect findings for military families in Texas in 2002 and 2003.
The authors called for enhanced support services for wives at home. "As a country, we all want to see Army families getting the support they need," Gibbs says.
The Army will take the results of the latest study and others to improve programs and start new ones, says Maj. Cheryl Phillips, an Army spokeswoman.
Several Army wives said the study results did not surprise them.
"I had a lady that lived next to me that I could hear her yelling at her kids, calling them names," says Tanya Garcia, an Army mother of three who lived in Butzbach, Germany, during her husband's recent deployment. "And you could tell the kids didn't get the mommy they needed. They were dirty, hair not brushed."
That changed when the troops returned, she says: "When the guys came home, I never heard her yell, and you could tell that (the children) were taking baths every night."
"I firmly believe that more time at home between deployments would be the most beneficial solution," says Amy Lambert, an Army wife living at Fort Stewart, Ga. "Many spouses are lonely, scared and/or tired."