FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Sarah Galvin doesn't need a bunch of Ph.D.s to tell her it's tough being left to care for two young children while her husband is deployed to Iraq for 15 months.
"I swear to God, they leave, and the whole world starts to fall apart," said Galvin, whose husband, Dan, an Army staff sergeant, has been away more than he's been home in 10 years of marriage. During his deployments, she's had to deal with a leaky roof, a flooded kitchen, the hospitalization of a child, a broken-down car and strained finances.
So Galvin wasn't surprised to learn that a team of North Carolina researchers has found that children of soldiers may face significantly higher rates of neglect and maltreatment when a parent is sent to Iraq or Afghanistan. The parent left behind — usually a civilian mom — is most likely to mistreat or neglect the child.
The rate of child maltreatment jumped 42 percent when a parent was deployed in a combat zone, according to the study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Moderate or severe maltreatment was about 60 percent higher during deployment, and the rate of neglect was almost double.
Dolores Johnson, director of family programs for the Army, said it's important to note that neglect, which can include unsanitary living conditions and lack of proper supervision, is not the same as physical or sexual abuse.
"These are problems of omission rather than commission," Johnson said.
Two researchers each from RTI International in Research Triangle Park and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill studied nearly 1,800 families that had at least one substantiated report of neglect or abuse and an enlisted soldier who deployed at least once from Sept. 11, 2001, through 2004.
The Army commissioned the study, provided the data and encouraged the researchers to publish the findings.
"Unfortunately, it confirms what we know — that when kids are in a stressful home situation they are more likely to become victims," said Rebecca F. Clendenin, spokeswoman for the child advocacy group Action for Children North Carolina.
The researchers behind the study were careful to say their results don't apply to all Army families.
"These families are a small part of the Army," said Deborah Gibbs of RTI International's Children and Families Program. "We want to be the first to point out that Army families do an incredible job handling the unbelievable stress of deployments."
Also, the researchers don't conclude that deployment causes abuse or neglect to happen in families where it otherwise would not, she said. In any population, Gibbs said, there are families vulnerable to difficulties, and deployments add to the difficulties.
There are more than 200,000 Army families with children under 18, Gibbs said. To come up with a group to best show how deployments affect child maltreatment, researchers examined families that during the study period had at least one case of substantiated abuse or neglect and a soldier who deployed at least once.
The stress of deployment came home to Fort Bragg in 2002, when four soldiers — three of whom had recently returned from Afghanistan or Iraq — apparently killed their wives. Three also killed themselves.
Afterward, the Army found that each couple had a troubled marriage, though almost no one outside their immediate families knew it, and that neither the soldiers nor their spouses sought help from programs on base that provide mental health counseling and training to prevent domestic abuse, including child abuse. In follow-up research, the Army found that soldiers and their families did not seek help for two reasons: They didn't know it was available, or they feared damaging the soldier's career.
The Army has made it easier for service members and their families to get help; they can call a toll-free, 24 hour-hotline to find out what's available and where to go on base. It also expanded its system of family readiness groups, the loose-knit network of spouses that serve as a social outlet and a source of information. Recently, Fort Bragg got money to hire 52 people to help run the groups, rather than relying on volunteers, whose organization and communication skills vary and who have to relocate when spouses are reassigned.
But the problem of getting people to attend programs persists.
"We have the programs," said Tom Hill, family advocacy program manager at Fort Bragg. "It's getting people to them, and making them feel like they're safe."
Last month, Hill's office began a one-hour child safety class for parents who live on post. Parents receive a free child-proofing kit with electrical-outlet covers and cabinet-door latches, and a rundown of some basic child-rearing rules, such as don't leave a baby sleeping in a crib while you take an older child across the street to the playground.
Such practical advice is useful, but Hill said he would like to do more to help parents relieve stress.
"We don't need another anger management class," he said. "What we need is the nitty gritty. We need to get `em real help, like a few hours off on the weekend, where they can do something for themselves and we give the kids something to do."
The agency organizes in-home visits by nurses and social workers, occasional all-day Saturday events for children up to fourth grade, and weekly play groups, where small children sing "Itsy Bitsy Spider" while mothers commiserate about how long it's been since they got to shower with the bathroom door closed.
Moving from post to post, Galvin has learned to find events like those, as well as volunteer opportunities, so she and her children make friends and she knows where to turn if something goes wrong. She also works part time. Galvin, who wasn't part of the study published Wednesday, says her efforts have kept her from abusing or neglecting her children.
Still, the deployments have been difficult. She has been going to counseling for months. She recently enrolled her 7-year-old daughter, Rylee, in therapy and worries that her husband, on his third combat tour, is showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sometimes, it all feels like too much. She catches herself snapping at Rylee and 6-year-old Josh, who is in constant motion.
"There are times," she said, "when I've gone into my bedroom and locked the door, and told the kids, `Mommy can't talk to you right now.'
"Each day, you learn something about yourself. You have to get up every day and take care of those kids, and the house, and do your job, and there isn't that person to fall back on when you don't feel like fixing supper."
One finding in the study is that child maltreatment is not significantly likely to increase with multiple combat deployments. This suggests that unlike soldiers, who tend to fare worse with each subsequent deployment, left-behind spouses may get stronger, or at least, better at coping.
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