FORT BRAGG — The rate of child homicide committed by parents or caregivers in North Carolina has dropped over the past decade, but children in Cumberland and Onslow counties – home of the state’s large military bases – are still twice as likely to be killed by a parent or babysitter as children living elsewhere in the state.
A study released Tuesday by Action for Children North Carolina found that both military and non-military families in those counties have higher-than-average rates of child-homicide.
The good news in the report, said Tom Vitaglione, senior fellow with Action for Children, is that a decade of trying to reduce the problem has had some effect. At a press conference on Fort Bragg, Army and local social service workers discussed the work that has been done to prevent child deaths and where problems remain.
A major problem is that many soldiers still believe it will harm their chances for advancement if they seek counseling when they are under stress, though programs are widely available.
“It’s OK to seek assistance,” said Col. Fredrick Dubois, chief of social work at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg. “It’s OK to seek help.”
From 2001 to 2010, the study found, 251 children age 10 or younger died at the hands of parents or caregivers in North Carolina, a rate of 1.9 deaths per 100,000 children. That’s down from 2.2 deaths per 100,000 during the previous 15-year period.
Twenty-two of the deaths were in Cumberland County, and 10 of those were among active-duty military families. During that period, Cumberland County’s child-homicide rate was 4.18 per 100,000.
Eleven of the deaths occurred in Onslow County, home of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, eight of them in active-duty military families. Onslow County’s child-homicide rate during the period was 4.07 per 100,000.
From 1985 to 2000, the rate in Cumberland County was 4.6 per 100,000, and in Onslow County, 4.3.
The Army investigated each of the child deaths occurring in military families from 2001 to 2010, and Fort Bragg spokesman Tom McCollum said investigators found no link between the deaths and the frequent deployments of soldiers since Sept. 11. In five of the 10 cases, McCollum said, the deaths were blamed on step-parents or non-parental caregivers. In four of the 10 cases, at least one parent had mental problems or substance abuse problems, and medical screenings had failed to detect any signs of abuse that might have triggered intervention.
Vitaglione said researchers think the reason military families have higher rates of child homicide is that they have more of the risk factors than the general population: the parents and the children are younger; the parents are less educated and less financially secure; they are more likely to be “blended families;” they are more likely to experience mental stress or mental illness; and they tend to be isolated from extended families.
Higher rates among non-military families living near military bases may be attributable to the transient nature of those communities, Vitaglione said, as well as the distance between those residents and their extended families, who might otherwise be a source of support.
Brenda Reid Jackson, director of the Cumberland County Department of Social Services, said Fort Bragg and Cumberland County could serve as a national model for the way the military base and the larger community have worked together to educate young parents, teach them coping skills and provide help when they are under stress.
A particularly effective tool, in place since 1996, is an Army program that sends a nurse to visit the home of every newborn if the parent requests it, bringing along a safety kit of outlet and doorknob protectors and laminated cards with tips on soothing a crying baby. Nurses can make regular visits until the child turns 3.
A stubborn problem with reducing child homicides in military families is that while the military can make certain demands of its soldiers, requiring them to get certain kinds of training, it can’t do the same with their non-military spouses.
“We offer the programs,” McCollum said, “but we can’t make them come.”