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The number of child abuse cases in the military hits a decade high

Missy Ryan | The Washington Post

Confirmed cases of abuse and neglect of military children increased markedly in 2014, Defense Department data showed on Wednesday, prompting concerns among Pentagon about efforts to safeguard the nation’s over 1 million military children.

In fiscal year 2014, officials tracking family violence within the military confirmed 7,676 cases of child abuse or neglect, an increase of 10 percent from the previous year, according to annual statistics on child abuse and domestic violence. Confirmed cases of neglect – which excludes physical and sexual abuse – rose by 14 percent, military officials said.

The data, which has not been released publicly and was obtained by the Washington Post, contrasts with a years-long decline in child abuse and neglect among civilian families nationwide.

“It really did get our attention,” a Defense Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the data. But officials equally acknowledged they don’t fully understand the reasons behind – or the significance of — the increase in 2014 abuse figures.

The number of abused and neglected military children dropped steadily from 2004 until 2008, when it began to rise again.

With only limited ability at the Pentagon to analyze complex social science data, the Pentagon has now hired an external expert in child abuse to scrutinize the worrying increase in instances of neglect.

“We’re hoping to take a deeper dive into the data in the next year,” the official said.

While the government has not yet released 2014 data on child abuse among the general population, the rate of sexual and physical abuse among Americans has declined significantly since the mid-1990s. Over that period, the number of neglect cases also declined, but at a slower rate.

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said the rate of abuse among military families, at 5.6 victims per 1,000 children, remains well below that for the general population, which is around 9 per 1,000 nationally.

“I do think noticing something like that in the data really merits an investigation, to see what could be going on … especially in something as important as the welfare of children,” Finkelhor said.

Yet he cautioned that the new Pentagon figures may be less indicative of a serious increase in child mistreatment than they appear at first glance.

While the number of cases of abuse and neglect rose in 2014, the actual number of child victims fell slightly to 5,838. Military officials have said such a discrepancy may be caused by the fact that a single child can be the subject of multiple incidents, or that multiple people could be charged in the abuse of a single child.

The data also shows a jump in the share of alleged child abusers who are female rather than male.

Military officials also received reports of 30 fatalities linked to child abuse or neglect in 2014, 18 of which were deaths among children less than 1 year old. There are 1.05 million children in U.S. military families.

The figures come to light as the Pentagon grapples with toll that repeated deployments, combat stress and, now, budget pressures and force reductions have taken on military families over the last decade.

While the winding down of the war of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has reunited families, the new figures have prompted concern among Pentagon officials about ongoing strains faced by military families.

“The stress on the force doesn’t end when the deployment is going away or slowing down,” said Patricia Barron, an official with the Association of the U.S. Army.

The external child abuse expert will focus on the 14-percent increase in child neglect, a Pentagon spokesman said. Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, said that neglect was the most prevalent form of child abuse, in part because programs to address the phenomenon did not receive enough funding or attention.

Pentagon officials described a number of safeguards the military has put in place to curb domestic violence, including placing family advocacy officials on every military installation and educating military leaders and rank-and-file about how to detect, report and prevent abuse. Cases of abuse or neglect are referred to military or civilian law enforcement.

“Providing resources and engaging with military families is both a national security issue and a moral imperative,” said Rosemary Freitas Williams, a senior Pentagon official responsible for military community and family policy.

The Pentagon is also struggling to end a chronic problem with sexual assault among service members. In May, the Defense Dept. released a report showing that instances of sexual assault had fallen but that retaliation against those who report such attacks remains a major problem. For the first time, the military is also expanding the scope of its effort to contain sexual assault to include male-on-male attacks.

The family abuse data also shows positive trends, including a 6 percent decrease in spousal abuse in 2014.