Child Abuse in Army Families Likely Under-Reported: Study

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Child abuse and neglect in Army families likely goes widely unreported and untracked by military officials, according to a new study.

Only 20 percent of Army dependent child abuse and neglect cases diagnosed by doctors between 2004 and 2007 were found to have a "substantiated report" in the Army's Family Advocacy Program (FAP) system, according to researchers with the PolicyLab at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"Our data suggests that they don't know about the majority of the cases that are being diagnosed in health care facilities," said Dr. Dave Rubin, who directs the PolicyLab. "The data raises some serious concerns about under-reporting to the family advocacy program -- and that's the principal finding here."

The report was sponsored in part by the Defense Department and published in the research journal Child Abuse & Neglect.

While it is possible that the Army did know about the cases, investigated them and then dismissed them after finding them to be "unsubstantiated," it is statistically unlikely, Rubin said. Instead, he said, it's more likely that the cases were reported to civilian agencies -- but never passed on to the Army -- or were unreported entirely.

The disconnect highlights a major communications breakdown between Family Advocacy Program officials, tasked with making sure Army children are safe from potential abuse, and state and local agencies in towns where bases are located. The Army, Rubin said, can act only on information provided to it.

"There's a concern that kids are slipping through the cracks -- that these are not being reported at all," he said. "In 2016, we might have some kids in the U.S. Army that are at risk that neither our civilian or military agencies know about.”

Without Army tracking, Rubin said, there's no way for military officials to make sure kids who move frequently are getting the protections they need.

"These kids are much more vulnerable, and they are much more of a moving target," he said.

Army officials said they used the findings to help train medical providers to report child abuse to both Army and local officials.

"The Army recently contracted with [PolicyLab] to study more recent data to understand how cases may not reach [the Family Advocacy Program] when they are reported directly to Child Protective Services and/or local law enforcement officials," Army Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson said in a statement. "The Army's goal, as always, is to ensure we are providing soldiers and their families the assistance they need to address family issues, and to make certain that our providers adhere to the mandatory reporting of cases of child maltreatment or abuse."

A 2015 PolicyLab report showed that children under the age of two are at double the risk for neglect and abuse during a second deployment as they are during the first one.

Two measures in an annual defense bill awaiting the president's signature make it mandatory for members of a service member's chain of command to report child abuse incidents to the Family Advocacy Program while also requiring the DoD to submit an annual report to Congress on the number of abuse cases in the previous year and the effectiveness of the FAP program DoD-wide. The first report is due April 30, 2017.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at

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