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Three Air Force children died from maltreatment in fiscal 2012, one more than the year before but far below the peak year of 2006 when nine such deaths were reported, according to the Office of the Surgeon General.
The Air Force substantiated 1,288 maltreatment cases in fiscal 2012, about 6 percent more than the year before but an increase of about 25 percent since 2008.
Child maltreatment has trended upward over the last five years largely due to a rise in neglect and emotional abuse, said Lt. Col. Carol Copeland, chief of the Air Force Family Advocacy Program. While physical abuse has remained relatively flat since 2008, neglect cases increased more than 30 percent. The frequency of emotional abuse jumped nearly 75 percent.
A greater awareness of emotional abuse — and more vigilance by Family Advocacy — may explain the rise in those cases, she said.
Increasing neglect cases correlate with ongoing deployments as the U.S. enters the 12th year of war in Afghanistan.
Maltreatment — defined as neglect or physical, sexual or emotional abuse — increases when an active-duty parent is deployed, said Lt. Col. Wendy Travis, who oversees mental health division policy and program evaluation at the Air Force Medical Operations Agency.
The rate goes down after the parent returns home.
“We suspect for many civilian parents left alone, they are more isolated. They have increased stress and are probably balancing a lot of demands. Maybe they are still working, or they may be at home without a lot of support,” Travis said. “The bottom line is we need to dig into this a little more.”
Families who have young children may also be distracted by technology, Copeland said.
Three recent cases
A recent spate of Air Force child deaths has brought the issue to the forefront.
In August, 22-month-old Tamryn Klapheke died at her home on Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, while her father, Senior Airman Thomas Klapheke, was deployed.
Police said she died as a result of long-term neglect and charged her mother, 22-year-old Tiffany Klapheke. Tiffany Klapheke later told a local TV station she’d been overwhelmed caring for three children under the age of 3.
She is scheduled to stand trial July 15. The Air Force charged Senior Airman Christopher Perez with failing to report neglect.
Perez was living at the Klapheke home when the child died. A court-martial date has not been set.
Another 22-month-old Air Force dependent died in March, this time at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. Civilian authorities charged the boy’s stepfather, Airman 1st Class Richard Laubach, 20, with beating him to death.
Also in March, Senior Airman Matthew Theurer, 21, was arrested in connection with the death of his 15-month-old son after the child’s body was discovered some 100 miles from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. It is unclear how he died.
Laubach faces a preliminary hearing July 8. There has been no update in the Theurer case, although he will likely face military prosecution.
Most cases treated by Family Advocacy aren’t criminal in nature, Copeland said. Almost all of them fall in a category of mild or moderate; between 1 and 4 percent are considered severe.
“The kind of cases we take that would be mild probably wouldn’t come across the radar in the civilian sector. What we look for is families just starting to show signs of struggle,” Copeland said.
On alert for 'stinky airmen'
Each time there is a child maltreatment death, a fatality review board scrutinizes the case, looking for trends and commonalities.
“Typically if we lose a child, it’s a child under the age of 2,” said Pam Collins, clinical director of the Air Force Family Advocacy Program.
Commanders, supervisors and first sergeants are trained to be on the lookout for airmen with gaming addictions that can lead to child neglect and what Collins refers to as “stinky airmen.”
“Stinky airmen come from stinky houses. You walk in and they have elaborate gaming systems, and they are sitting in lawn chairs and sleeping on mattresses on the floor. This is not a safe place for these children,” Collins said.
The Air Force also has a new parent support program that screens first-time parents on a voluntary basis by assessing their needs and providing them the appropriate support, such as assistance from medical professionals, Copeland said.
Families who have one maltreatment case and successfully complete treatment rarely have a second, she said.
DEATHS BY YEAR