The stress of having an Army spouse in a combat zone leads to a 60% increase in the rate of moderate to severe maltreatment of children by the spouse left behind, researchers said Tuesday.
The researchers found that the increased abuse and neglect was overwhelmingly committed by female spouses. They found no significant increase by male spouses left behind, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.
The maltreatment could have long-term consequences because abused children are more likely to suffer from depression and other health problems well into adulthood, the North Carolina researchers said.
Parental stress is one of the most common causes of such maltreatment, which includes neglect and physical, emotional and sexual abuse, the team said, adding that deployment of a spouse to a combat zone is likely to increase stress substantially.
In a statement, the Army said it already had begun to bolster its family support services through increased funding and personnel. The Army Medical Command also has called for more aggressive screening of spouses for signs of depression, the statement said.
Lead author Deborah Gibbs, a health analyst at RTI International in Research Triangle Park, N.C., said the researchers had been working with the Army for several years to look at "child maltreatment in the context of other family problems."
A study released in May on which Gibbs was a coauthor found that the rate of child maltreatment among military families in Texas increased sharply following deployments after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Gibbs said the new study, which was funded by the Army, expanded on that work by providing more information on the different kinds of abuse and the characteristics of the families involved.
In active-duty Army families in which the soldier was deployed to combat at least once between September 2001 and December 2004, there were 1,985 recorded incidents of child maltreatment. After excluding unmarried parents, officers and two-soldier families, 1,771 incidents were analyzed.
During deployment, the rate of maltreatment by female civilian spouses was three times higher than when their Army spouse was home.
The most common form of mistreatment was neglect, which the researchers defined as failure to provide adequate care, supervision and -- in some cases -- abandonment.
The rate of neglect by female spouses was four times higher during their spouse's deployment. The rate of physical abuse by female spouses doubled during those times.
Overall, the rate of maltreatment -- mild, moderate and severe -- for males and females increased 40% when one spouse was deployed.
The only areas that decreased were the rates for emotional and physical abuse.
That decline was largely because of the deployment of male soldiers, who were responsible for most of the abuse when they were home.
"The Army has been very aware of the stress that deployments create for families and already do a number of things to try to support families in different ways," Gibbs said.
The study recommends improving family services for at-risk parents and letting them know what help is available.
Gibbs said that further studies of child maltreatment should be made of military families, because, since 2004, there had been longer deployments and more intense fighting.