Ensuring Military Families Are the Best They Can Be

Strengthening families to prevent child abuse and neglect

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Robert and Tracy Damron with their children, Noah and Rachel, on the day Robert deployed to Afghanistan last spring.

When Tracy Damron heard her husband, Robert, say, "I've been hit, I'm in the hospital," she could not react. She simply held the phone in her hand and tried to process the unwelcome news as their 14-month-old daughter, Rachel, sat in her lap and Noah, their 6-year-old son, played in the other room. For operational security reasons, Robert could not give his wife many details of his traumatic brain injury.

"The hardest part is not seeing that he is okay, only hearing he is okay," says Damron. "The biggest fear for any wife or spouse in the military is to get that phone call or knock on the door and know that you cannot break down and cry in front of your kids."

Robert is on his third deployment, stationed in Afghanistan as an Army Specialist. Thousands of miles separate Robert from his wife and children, who live in military housing on the base of Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Damron has become an active member of a community of military families who have come together, united by their similar circumstances, to support one another.

"I've branched out to the other wives and we have all become really close. If anything ever happens, we can pick up the phone and any one of us at any time will be there for the others," Damron says. One fellow military wife even babysat Damron's children after she learned of her husband's injury so she could "go de-stress for a second."

According to research done by the National Resource Center for Community Based Child Abuse Prevention (NRC for CBCAP), a CWLA member agency that's part of Family Resource Information, Education, and Network Development Services (FRIENDS) the need to "de-stress" is imperative as increased stress in families can lead, in the worst of circumstances, to higher instances of child abuse and neglect. Finding ways to deliver resources to support and strengthen families and build parental resilience to reduce instances of child abuse and neglect is a challenge the civilian and military sectors are trying to address.

Protective Factors: The Best Defense

Research shows that the risk of child abuse and neglect is reduced when families are supported and strengthened through a focus on improving protective factors. There are five key protective factors that have been identified by the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), a CWLA member, as part of their Strengthening Families framework to prevent child abuse and neglect. These are: (1) parental resilience, (2) social connections, (3) knowledge of parenting and child development, (4) concrete support in times of need, and (5) children's social and emotional development. Through the FRIENDS NRC for CBCAP, in collaboration with the University of Kansas Institute for Educational Research and Public Service, and through the advice of CBCAP grantees, parents, researchers, administrators, workers, and others specializing in family support and maltreatment and psychological measurement, a protective factors survey has been developed to help prevention programs assess and measure their success by looking at changes in protective factors for participants in their programs. (See sidebar on page 21 for more information.)

Information collected through the survey can be used to identify areas to focus activities to increase a specific family's protective factors. Many CWLA members have participated in the national field tests of the survey with a wide variety of populations. This instrument is being used more frequently to help agencies and programs become more effective in building parental resilience capacity to cope and bounce back from challenges along with the other protective factors to lower the risks of abuse and neglect for children.

A family with strong protective factors would: be able to handle life's unexpected challenges; have social connections with friends, family, neighbors, and others that provide them with emotional support; and possess knowledge of parenting and child development so that they have appropriate expectations of a child's behavior. Children with strong protective factors also know how to comfortably, positively, and effectively communicate their needs and emotions with others, and lastly, the family has access to financial and social services such as health and counseling resources when necessary.

"A family could have elements of risk in their current context, but if you have solid protective factors, it could mitigate those risks. It's a message that resonates with families because it's something that all families want to build," says Mary Campise, Family Advocacy Program analyst for the Department of Defense.

Multiple deployments due to the length of the conflicts in the Middle East, limited communication, intermittent parenting, feelings of isolation, separation from relatives, constant fear for a loved one's safety, missing out on milestones in a child's life, and other strains of military life can take its toll on military families. Damron and her family face some of these challenges daily. "The most difficult and stressful aspect of military life is worrying about his safety," Damron says.

Damron's son counts down the days until his dad returns, regularly asking, "How much more time until Daddy comes home?" He often sleeps with one of his dad's pillows and, like his sister, carries a daddy doll--a doll for military children that includes a picture of their deployed father.

The Damrons try to talk to Robert each week, but can sometimes go four to six weeks without hearing from him if communication is down because of heavy fire. It's stressors like these that separate military families from the civilian world. "You can pretty much say I'm a single mom with some extra baggage. I'm both mom and dad. I am the sole foundation when my husband is away. I have to be strong for my kids," Damron explains.

Resources in the Civilian Sector

"If the spouse is stressed, that seems to carry over to the kids too," says Greg Leskin, director of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. With the UCLA Center for Community Health, the Network developed the Families OverComing Under Stress (FOCUS) program designed to build resiliency in military families and children facing combat deployment. "It's a slippery slope of strain, stress, and separation that a family faces," Leskin continues. Child abuse and neglect is "more of an exception rather than a rule, but our guiding principle is to help prevent that slippery slope for families with the greatest risk."

In addition to FOCUS, Parents as Teachers (PAT), a CWLA member, is another program that works to provide supports to strengthen families and thereby prevent child abuse and neglect in families--including military families. As part of the civilian sector, PAT is comprised of 12,000 educators who use a set curriculum centered on services that help build the protective factors in families. Social, health, and educational service organizations such as school districts and Head Start programs use the curriculum. It is based on four components: the provision of available resources, personal home visitations, group connections, and child developmental screenings.

"All families in the PAT program receive all four components. We actually believe that it's the dynamic nature of all four of these working together that gets our outcome," says Donna Hunt O'Brien, senior training manager for PAT.

A 2010 Department of Defense report shows that more than 40% of active duty service members have children, the majority being ages 5 or younger. PAT targets these families based on research that infants and preschool-aged children, still in their attachment stage of development, are most impacted by parental deployment. Also, best parenting practices are more effective if they're begun during the critical years of a child's life. PAT's parent educators work to increase a parent's knowledge of child development. They also offer screenings for early detection of developmental delays and work one-on-one with children to get them ready for kindergarten.

Jennifer Zuerker is a military wife whose husband is also serving in Afghanistan. She and her 4-year-old daughter, Lexi, live on the Fort Riley military base in Kansas. Zuerker's daughter benefits from PAT's home visitations.

"I've noticed differences in my daughter since the teacher started coming," Zuerker says. She heard about the program from a neighbor and says she has found more support on base than she did in the civilian sector. "I think it's great, I've met more people in less than a year on post since I've enrolled in the program," she continues. Community-based agencies are trying to find ways to improve awareness of resources to military families who do not live on base, where communication is much easier.

Damron is another PAT supporter. "I have one child with special needs, which is stressful because I hadn't found many resources to help until I moved here [to Fort Leonard Wood]. PAT tremendously helped me. We got him in school and that took some of the stress off," says Damron. After undergoing a PAT screening, her son was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Being unaware of resources and feeling isolated is one of the biggest complaints Earl Kloppmann, program manager for the Parents Care and Share program Chicagoland, hears from military families who live off base. "Among the parents who came to our group, isolation seemed to be the number one thing that they communicated. [They said] that there were no supports for them in their communities and that the civilian population didn't understand them," says Kloppmann. "When they get together, [they] want to talk, want to make connections and see what everybody else is experiencing, and look for solutions."

Chicagoland is a specific PCS group that uses the Circle of Parents model to help military parents who live off base in the Chicago area. They come together in a group setting to talk openly about the struggles they face. Operating under Children's Home and Aid, a CWLA member, they also offer educational materials on effective parenting skills and healthy child development, free child care, and dinners when the group meets. The program centers on using the five protective factors in its attempt to bring families out of isolation--a big risk factor for child abuse and neglect--to connect with other families.

"Underlying our groups are the protective factors. The children's group leader and the facilitator work together to address issues that may be in the lives of the children so to better help the family develop resiliency. Our program was just involved in a national study using the FRIENDS NRC protective factors survey with 10 other states connected to Circle of Parents, and the initial reports are that the outcomes were really positive," says Kloppmann.

Despite intensive outreach efforts--including advertisements and thousands of fliers--multiple deployments and frequent moves of military families have put Chicagoland temporarily on hold. The nature of military life often makes it difficult for organizations like PAT and programs such as PCS to alleviate the isolation many military families feel.

Resources on Base

Like the civilian sector, the military is also focused on developing programs to support and strengthen families and prevent child abuse and neglect before it occurs. They have programs centered on the five protective factors that help military families become more resilient to more effectively deal with the stress that constant deployments, financial strain, and intermittent parenting can bring.

Damron says there are many resources available on base, including services for children and youth that provide counseling to families. They have free programs and different activities for military children to do. The military also partners with community organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the YMCA, the National Military Family Association, and local schools to reach out to families who do not live on base.

The Family Advocacy Program (FAP) plays a big role on every military installation where there are command-sponsored families. FAP serves as the social service agency for the Department of Defense. It deals with instances of child abuse and neglect and also provides prevention programs, educational classes, seminars, and play and support groups to military parents.

Specific to the effort of child abuse and neglect prevention for parents of young children on and off military installations, the New Parent Support Program (NPSP), through Military HomeFront--a website devoted to helping military families get access to helpful programs near their area--works to address the issues facing military parents of children from birth to age 3. Like the PAT and PCS programs, its goal is to help families become more adaptive to military life so they are better able to handle its stressors.

"The military has developed so many programs to support families going through deployment. For example, every installation command that contains families facing multiple deployments often has family readiness groups and spouse support groups," Campise says.

The NPSP works mainly with families who have been identified as needing extra support, meaning they possess some of the factors known to increase the risk of child abuse and neglect. They do this through home visitation services, playgroups, parenting classes, and educational materials. It is during home visitations that NPSP managers look for "gaps" in a family's protective factors so that they can provide the support to strengthen the family's protective factors while helping to minimize the risk factors.

Campise says that the program seems to be working. "When we look a year later at parents receiving [NPSP] home visitation services for at least six months, we see the data showing that so far 85% have not had a subsequent event," she says.

Advancing the Field

Despite the advances being made, there are often disconnects with prevention efforts for military families. The most daunting challenge to the field seems to be linking together the resources that exist in the military and the resources that exist in the civilian sector for families living both on and off military bases.

"There are a lot of resources--the challenge is connecting them," says Campise. "By reaching out to our civilian partners like the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, we are hoping that they can help us make sure that military families are aware that there are military-specific resources available to them."

Campise says making the difficulties military families face a public issue is important to bringing together the civilian and military sector and those living on and off base. She cites Michelle Obama and Jill Biden's Joining Forces Campaign (JFC) as a great effort to raise awareness. The JFC is a national initiative by Obama and Biden to provide service mem-bers and their families' access to the support and services they need.

Campise has also been participating in other national initiatives such as CSSP's Strengthening Families Leadership Summit, held in June, which explored ways to further strengthen U.S. children and families. "By doing things like sitting in on the Strengthening Families Leadership Summit, we are trying to find opportunities where we can come to the table and learn more about each other," Campise says. "It's an ongoing effort to do better."

After months of not seeing his family, Robert Damron will soon return home for a 30-day leave. Among many things he has missed, the most notable is his 15-month-old daughter's first words and steps. Despite the apparent sacrifices military life brings, his wife Tracy thinks positively of her experience. "My job isn't that tough," she says. "I have a hard time with it, but the real tough job is my husband's. Military life isn't an easy life; it's a hard life, but it's a very rewarding life."

Nicole Thieman is an editorial intern at CWLA.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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