Child abuse is a problem – even among military families. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Steve White)
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson is home to many children, and hundreds more military children live in Anchorage and the surrounding communities.
Military families are often under more stress than others - with deployments and frequent moving putting pressure on parents and children alike. And stressors can put children at risk for neglect and even abuse.
"If parents are stressed to the point that they're having a hard time even with self-care, it's hard to form attachments and that puts children at risk," said Verna Loosli, an outreach manager with the JBER Family Advocacy Program. Although most people tend to think of physical abuse as the most potentially lethal problem, child neglect is often the most fatal to kids.
Fortunately, there are protective factors which have been shown to increase the health and well-being of families and children, according to childwelfare.gov.
Nurturing and attachment are one factor - when parents and children have strong, warm feelings for one another, children learn to trust parents to provide what they need. Another factor is parents' knowledge of child development.
Parents' own resilience and ability to creatively problem solve, address challenges, and have a positive attitude mean they are less likely to direct their frustrations at children. Social connections and having caring family and friends for emotional support in the daily challenges of family life also protect not only parents, but their children.
And having concrete support - food, clothing, housing and transportation - lets parents ensure the health and safety of their children.
The JBER community and programs provide assistance with all of these.
The Family Advocacy Program offers parenting classes, resiliency training, and interactive ways for families to draw closer together.
"We're not here to get people in trouble," Loosli said. "Although people should take seriously their responsibility to report suspected abuse. We care about children, and about parents, and we want parents to have as many tools as possible."
"If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail," Loosli said. "If the only 'tool' you have for parenting is yelling, then that's what you do. You know you're supposed to be in charge and do something, but you lack other tools. We try to provide those."
Parenting tools are some of the most important things to prevent abuse and neglect, she said.
"How do you calm a fussy baby? What if there are feeding problems? How do you manage a two-year-old who's stomping his feet and saying 'no'? If you understand development, you'll see that saying 'no' as a good thing in a way - you've given him self-esteem and he's moving up to independence."
And while parents' resilience is important, Loosli stressed that resilience isn't self-contained. Everyone needs external support, she said, and the New Parent Support Program offers assistance to visit homes and offer a hand when needed.
There are plenty of other resources available at home, too - even online videos.
"If you (do a search) for 'toddlers arguing,' for example, any problem, you can get good pointers, even if it's 2 a.m.," Loosli said.
All the outreach managers at Family Advocacy are parents themselves, she said.
"We don't judge. Parenting is the toughest job you'll ever love - it's 18 years of being on-call, 24/7, but it's rewarding."
Unfortunately, the military isn't immune to family violence - in fiscal year 2010, there were 5.7 cases per 1,000 families of substantiated child maltreatment cases, according to a report by the Department of Defense's Family Advocacy Program. Most of those were neglect or emotional abuse, said the report.
JBER offers ways to combat being one of those statistics. On Saturday, multiple agencies around the installation will host the Easter Eggstravaganza at the Buckner Physical Fitness Center, with age-grouped egg hunts and an indoor Family Fitness Day so families can spend quality time together learning healthy habits.
It also puts families in a place where they can connect.
"We have a tendency in the military to think 'buck up' and try to handle things on our own," Loosli said. "But social connections are important. If you're living in your home community, you have friends and family around. That's a challenge in the military family - we have wonderful support, but people have to know where to go."
"People take family for granted and don't realize the support they get at home. But no one ever moved into a cave and raised a child alone. You have to find ways to get support."
The DoD recognizes the fact that families don't have that natural support when they've moved, and provides assistance.
"It may not feel as comfortable at first, but you deserve it," Loosli said. "If you can't have your mom there, you need to have someone."
As part of the recognition of Child Abuse Awareness Month, tables with information will be set up in various places around the base offering pointers, class schedules, and other items.
If you think you have a problem or you're having difficulties, there are some steps to take. First, take responsibility to not escalate the situation.
"We think of time-outs as something for kids, but time-outs for parents can be a valuable tool," Loosli said. "It can stop the potential for harm, and it also models self-control to tell a child 'I'm too angry to talk to you right now.'"
Second, get some other ideas on dealing with things. Whether it's a parenting class for general knowledge, or specific ideas like laying out clothes and putting homework in school bags the night before to reduce morning stressors, bringing problem-solving to the table can help, she said.
"Maybe you can enroll your child in softball or another sport, so they can burn off energy. And find activities that you can do together to increase nurturing and affection."
Getting help from Family Advocacy won't damage a career unless it's a referral for an incident. Military Family Life Consultants don't keep records of people coming to them for help, and can meet on or off base, and Military OneSource offers counseling and other assistance too.
"Get help before there are big issues," Loosli said.
Importantly, watch out for friends and neighbors.
"We're a JBER community," Loosli said. "Keep an eye out for your neighbor. If you get the impression that they're stressed, if they're yelling or trying to wrangle kids into the car ... if they're having a hard time, see if they need help and offer that connection."