Although it doesn’t happen often, family violence does occur in military families, and sometimes young children are involved. I think everyone can agree that any child who is harmed in their own home is one too many. But where do we start in helping stressed and vulnerable military families develop the strength and resources that will prevent maltreatment?
The Reality of Military Family Violence
Acknowledging that family violence does happen in military families is the first step toward preventing it. The Department of Defense’s Family Advocacy Program (FAP) recently reported statistics* it had collected on domestic violence and child abuse and neglect in families with a parent who was active duty or activated reserve or guard. In 2010, over 5,500 children were involved in substantiated incidences of child abuse and/or neglect (.6% of military children). The majority of these (73%) were emotional abuse only; 22% included physical abuse that wasn’t sexual; and 6% included some type of sexual abuse.
The report also included information about incidences of violence between parents, and children’s exposure to that violence. In 2009, among active duty families, 12% of instances of domestic violence had occurred in military families with children in the home. Most (87%) of the abuse was physical violence. A total of 2,025 children were exposed to violence between their parents.
And some children experience both direct abuse or neglect and violence between parents. In 2009, nearly 30% of incidents of substantiated child maltreatment also involved exposure to intimate partner violence.
Although it may be true, as the report states, that “the number of children in active component families exposed to [family violence] is small in comparison to the total number of children in active component families,” nevertheless, the number is still too high, particularly given that the number of incidences that are reported is undoubtedly lower than the actual number that occurred. Violence toward children and exposure to adult violence can have devastating effects on young children. A large body of research has shown that family and child-directed violence can negatively affect nearly every aspect of a child’s well-being, including physical and mental health, behavior, social and emotional functioning, and learning. Preventing maltreatment in military families needs to be a priority for every professional who supports them, including child care professionals.
The second step in prevention is knowing the factors that can reduce a family’s risk of maltreatment. Strengthening Families is a program, developed by the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), that aims to reduce child abuse and neglect by helping families, communities, and family service professionals build families’ “protective factors” – those factors identified by research as associated with lowered incidence of child maltreatment.
Strengthening Families identifies eight protective factors:
- Children’s social and emotional competence
- Feelings of competence in parenting role
- Parental resilience (i.e. able to bounce back from stress or adversity)
- Positive parent-child relationship
- Family social connections
- Effective parenting knowledge
- Concrete support in times of need (within the community or the family’s social network)
- Many opportunities for adult education or employment
Each of these factors is a resource that strengthens the family in some way, increasing their resilience to stress and lessening the likelihood that they will respond to stress in ways that are harmful to children. The more of these factors that a family has, the stronger they become.
The Role of Child Care Providers
How can child care programs help? The CSSP has identified early care and education programs as being in a uniquely influential position to help families increase many of these protective factors. Their research has found seven strategies that ECE programs can implement that are especially effective in strengthening vulnerable families. The following graphic illustrates the strategies child care programs can use, the protective factors they support, and the outcomes that result.
One of the best things about these seven strategies is that there are many, many ways to implement them. For example, for one program, offering a “parents’ night off,” where free child care is provided for an evening so that parents can spend some time together, may be a way to value and support parents. Another program may value and support parents by providing a “dinner-to-go” service that parents can sign up for once a month. The Strengthening Families website has over twenty “Exemplary Program Profiles” that describe in detail the changes that real child care programs have put into place to meet the specific needs of the families that they served. The profiles can spark your thinking for your own program but the possibilities are endless!
Many of the child care programs that I have talked with who have used the Strengthening Families framework have said that the most valuable part of the whole experience was the program self-assessment that CSSP suggests as the starting point. CSSP has created a downloadable self-assessment tool, along with suggestions for the self-assessment process. Forms are available for both center-based programs (in English and Spanish) and family child care programs. These tools can help programs identify the strategies that they are already addressing well and those that could use more attention and effort. The process creates the opportunity for teachers, parents, and administrators to talk together in depth about the needs of parents and children and the opportunities there are for the program to support them. Very often it’s an eye-opening experience that in itself strengthens the partnership between families and program staff.
And the self-assessment is just the beginning! Whatever changes are made or plans carried out, everyone benefits when early childhood programs focus attention on strengthening the resiliency of the families they serve. I encourage you to look through the resources that are available to early care and education programs who want to address the needs of vulnerable families, as well as all the other information that is available on the site.
Military life can place tremendous stress on young families, stress that can lead some parents to violence or neglect. We can’t know which parents might have used violence against their children or spouse if not for our efforts. But we can be sure that being sensitive to these families’ challenges and responding with creative, effective, and intentional supports is always worth our while.
* The following documents are the sources for the statistics reported here:
- Impact of Domestic Abuse on Military Children (PDF)
- Effects of Parental Violence on Military Children (PDF)
- Report to Congress on Impact of Domestic Violence on Military Families (PDF)
- Tools for early care and education programs
- Protective Factors handout
- Articles for Child Care Providers on Child Abuse and Neglect