SARAH SMILEY

Military wife, not military, responsible for child’s death

Posted Sept. 09, 2012, at 4:34 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 09, 2012, at 5:53 p.m.

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Sarah Smiley
Sarah Smiley

Between the holiday weekend, back-to-school stories and the political conventions, the following news about a military wife who allegedly killed her child slipped through the mainstream-media cracks. In military-spouse circles, however, it has opened a whole new line of questions and concern:

Should the military be doing regular checks on families?

Are there enough systems in place to help family members affected by deployments?

What else could the military have done?

I answer these: “no,” “yes” and “nothing.” I’m not buying any of the arguments against the military in this case. What I’m about to explain to you is the fault of one woman, not an organization.

On Friday, August 31, Tiffany Nicole Klapheke, 21, a Texas military wife whose husband has been deployed for just two months, was arrested for neglect when her 22-month-old daughter was found unresponsive in their Dyess Air Force Base home. The baby, who weighed only 17.5 pounds, later died from dehydration, malnutrition and a “lack of basic care,” according the Associated Press. There was evidence that she had been sitting in her own excrement and waste for quite some time.

Klapheke’s two other daughters — ages 6 months and 3 years — were also treated for neglect and taken into custody. Texas police say Klapheke left her three children alone and without food or water for days. Klapheke remains in a Texas jail and is charged with three counts of felony injury to a child.

In a jailhouse interview with KTAB-TV in Abilene, Klapheke admitted to being frustrated with her child’s potty training. She was tired of changing dirty sheets. Plus, her young daughter kept taking off her diaper and walking around the house. So Klapheke confined the child to her crib… for days.

Klapheke described herself as depressed, stressed and without family or help. (This, by the way, is not unlike how most military spouses dealing with a deployment describe themselves.) She told KTXS news reporter Jennifer Kendall, “Nobody took a second to ask me if there was anything they could do to help or if I needed anything, and I wish they would have.”

Klapheke sobbed as she described finding her lifeless daughter in the crib. She acknowledged that people will “hate” her, and she points out that she has never been in trouble with the law before, not even for a speeding ticket. According to KTXS, a drug test done on Klapheke came back clear.

Are you feeling sorry for Klapheke yet?

Unfortunately, mothers killing their own children is nothing new. In 1994, Susan Smith drowned her two children in South Carolina. Andrea Yates did the same to her five children in 2001. In fact, Cheryl Meyer, a psychology professor and researcher at Wright State University, claims to have found “several thousand cases” of mothers who killed their children between the years of 1990-1999.

Does anyone know what Susan Smith’s husband did for a living?

How about Andrea Yates’?

Like Klapheke, these women had severe and disturbing mental illnesses. Could their children have been saved if their husbands had stayed at home? Would Klapheke’s children be healthy today if her husband was not deployed?

I think the answer is no.

And yet, in the days that followed the news about Klapheke, military spouses flooded online message boards with solutions, including that we, as a military community, should check on families daily and that the military should be doing more to help people.

I’ve been a military dependent for 36 years. Never before has there been so many resources available to families. It’s drilled into us: call this 1-800 helpline in an emergency. Call this one if you “just need to talk.” Visit a family support center at the nearest base. Talk to the base chaplain or a physician.

Talking about stress and depression used to be taboo, especially for soldiers and pilots. Today, it’s encouraged at every opportunity. There are hotlines, books, counselors, pamphlets at the hospital and workshops on base.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that a military spouse has more chance at getting help with her mental illness than a civilian does.

But the military can only do so much. It is, after all, an institution built to protect the country, not to raise families.

Why wasn’t Susan Smith’s or Andrea Yates’ husbands’ occupations blamed for their children’s death? Did their employers “do enough”? Did fellow co-workers check on them enough? Was it their obligation?

Oh, but what about the long and recurring deployments, critics say. Don’t those contribute to the stress on military families?

Yes, they do. But it’s important to remember that thousands of service members are deployed at any given time. Not all — not even a majority — of their spouses harm their children. And, of course, just because a husband is physically present doesn’t mean that he is involved and supportive. If that were the case, why didn’t Yates’ or Smith’s husbands stop their wives?

There are a lot of people ready to point fingers in this case, many people who want to blame Klapheke’s husband’s deployment. But the alleged criminal here is the mother. She alone allegedly neglected her children and killed her 2-year-old. Let’s put her on trial for this murder. Not the military.

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