Child abuse and neglect cases confirmed by the U.S. military rose almost 10 percent in 2014, according to the Defense Department.
The number of incidents of child abuse and neglect increased 687 to 7,676 last year, according to Pentagon data released on Thursday. Because some cases involve more than one abuser, the actual number of victims totaled 5,838, or about a half-percent of the military's 1 million children.
Of the victims, 63 percent were neglected and 25 percent were physically abused, the figures show. About half of the adults accused in the cases were civilian parents, family members or friends while the other half were military personnel, they show.
Experts in child abuse intervention said they believe the increase represents only a fraction of the abuse occurring within the military community. Abuse and neglect often go unreported because military families don't seek mental health help or family support out of fear of harming the service member's career, they said.
"It's really the strangest thing you've ever seen," said Ambra Roberts, a crises intervention specialist who works with child protective services near Fort Benning, Georgia. "When I'm dealing with these things first hand, I'm like, 'So you didn't call the police when your husband did this?' And every time not hurting his career is their reasoning for not doing the right thing for these kids."
She said she expects both the number of reported abuse and neglect cases and the actual amount of abuse and neglect will continue to climb as service members and their families attempt to protect their chances of staying in the military.
"There has to be some sort of way that the spouse can go forward and get help for her family without fear of appraisal and reprimand of her husband's career," Roberts said.
The statistics worried military family advocates who say the bump could be a result of increased stress among military families as troop cuts continue and time at home increases.
"Lots of folks -- including us -- wondered what would happen once troops were home more after the rapid deployment pace slowed down," said Joyce Raezer, the executive director of the National Military Family Association.
"In addition to the uncertainty about downsizing, lingering effects of war and deployment and readiness [and] stress caused by sequestration and budget cuts, there are also the financial concerns: less money because service members aren't getting the deployment pay, two years of smaller pay raises, increased housing costs, fears over stability of benefits," she added.
The issue should raise a red flag at the Pentagon, according to Karen Golden, a military family lobbyist at the Military Officers Association of America.
"The alarm bell should be going off at DoD and we need to be looking at how are we working with our families," she said. "I believe DoD will take a serious look at this and what we're going to do to address this situation, particularly in an environment where budgets are decreasing and we're concerned about full funding of family programs. Are we going to make taking care of families a priority?"
Military spouses and their children who are victims of abuse can receive protections from the military, including transitional pay and benefits, through the Family Advocacy program. To receive the financial aid, however, they have to first report the abuse to military authorities and then remain separated from their abusive service member.
Defense Department officials said they are working to get the abuse and neglect rate under control by educating families about available resources.
"The Department is launching a first-ever digital marketing strategy targeting military families via digital on-line platforms (social media, websites) they currently use in order to inform them of available resources to protect and strengthen their families," Maj. Ben Sakrisson, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. "Information will be provided to drive awareness to three areas of neglect: safe sleeping, 'electronic distraction' and state requirements for children left unattended."
--Amy Bushatz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.