It is likely that some of the children who were assembled for Friday’s Nancy Swain Watters Memorial Walk have suffered some form of abuse. Statistics say that you can’t assemble more than 1,000 children without that reality.

Whether it’s because more children are more likely to report abuse due to heightened awareness, or because it’s happening more often, child abuse cases in the United States are increasing. The latest report from The Children’s Bureau, released in January, found that 7.2 million American children were involved in child abuse referrals in the 2015 calendar year alone. That was up from 6.6 million the previous year.

Sadly, that number likely only represents a fraction of the children in America who are actually being abused, since child abuse is notoriously under-reported and under-estimated. Whether it’s neglect, which involves nearly two-thirds of all child abuse cases, or physical or sexual abuse, an alarming number of children in our nation and in our community can’t feel truly safe in the place they should feel safest of all — their home.

For most of the children assembled for Friday’s walk, of course, abuse is probably not something they know anything about. In fact, for most of them, abuse and neglect was probably the furthest thing from their minds. They come from loving families, with parents who protect them and nurture them. They were on hand at Friday’s event to hang out with friends and enjoy a day out of school.

And since the entire idea behind the Nancy Swain Watters Memorial Walk is to increase child abuse awareness, the sight of those 1,000-plus students walking along Alberta Street through Oneida should serve as a reminder to the rest of us — a reminder of just how important it is to take a stand against child abuse here in our own community.

As Child Abuse Awareness & Prevention Month begins, all of us should take a look at the sobering statistics behind America’s child abuse epidemic. Child abuse is almost always — 80 percent of the time — perpetrated by one of the two people a child should feel safest around: a parent. It most often happens to those who are unable to speak for themselves, as one in every four victims of child abuse is under the age of one.

The story of an abused child isn’t one that ends once the perpetrators are jailed and the child is removed from a dangerous situation. It can have a lifelong impact. Studies have found that children who are subjected to abuse are much more likely to abuse drugs later in life. In fact, nearly two out of every three people in treatment for drug abuse report being abused or neglected as children. And more than a third of adolescents with a history of being abused will suffer from drug addiction by their 18th birthday. Four out of every five children who are abused develop at least one psychological disorder by their 21st birthday. Children who are repeatedly abused typically have shorter lifespans, with a life expectancy that is two decades shorter than those who were not abused as children. One in every four will become pregnant as a teenager. And they’re nine times more likely to become involved in criminal activity. In fact, 14 percent of all men and 36 percent of all women who are imprisoned in America were abused as children.

And we’re kidding ourselves if we think it doesn’t happen — and often — in our community. It is not merely coincidence that just three days before Friday’s walk, two Scott County men were indicted by a grand jury on allegations that they sexually abused children. Although neither of them has yet been convicted, one is accused of raping and sexually assaulting four different young girls over a period of five years, one of them as young as five years old.

If you want to see one of the staff members of the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands cry, it isn’t hard. Ask them about their work. They can tell you tales that will make your skin crawl. Tales that involve children that are our children’s friends; tales that involve people we know from work, from the ball field, and sometimes even from church.

Unfortunately, business is steady as usual for the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands, with a never-ceasing flow of clients through the doors of their north Oneida facility. And it’s just as steady for the Department of Children’s Services and local law enforcement agencies. For officers like Abby Duncan at the Scott County Sheriff’s Department and the investigative crew at Oneida Police Department, there is a never-ending stream of perpetrators to investigate and prosecute.

A recent caller to the Independent Herald complained that the Nancy Swain Watters Walk occurs along U.S. Hwy. 27 through Oneida. She complained that it is an inconvenience to motorists and that it creates a safety hazard. She suggested that the walk be moved to Oneida City Park, where students could walk around the track.

Let’s hope the decision-makers of our community never decide to move these students out-of-sight and out-of-mind. By walking along U.S. Hwy. 27, they serve as a reminder to the rest of us — a reminder of what this fight should be about. And that is our children.

Scott County is one of Tennessee’s leading timber producers. It has in the past been one of the nation’s leading coal producers. We make military sleep systems, precision-molded automobile parts, and rubber hoses and gaskets that go into some of America’s leading appliances. But our No. 1 product is, and always will be, our children. They’re the future leaders and businesspeople of our community, the ones who will guide this place after we are gone. And every time the bright future of one of our children is snuffed out, it’s our community’s loss.

As Judy Liming said during the opening ceremony before Friday’s walk, “no child should have the term ‘abuse’ attached to it.” That’s why we must be sure that we’re educating our children. That’s why we must be sure that child abuse is being reported, so that we can serve as a voice for those unable to speak for themselves. And that’s why we must be sure that those who fight child abuse in our community are always funded.

So it may be true that, for most of the children participating in Friday’s walk, abuse was the furthest thing from their minds, a distant though to the joy of getting to skip class for a day. But it’s also true that, sadly, statistics say you can’t assemble that many children without there being a few in the crowd who are being abused by a parent or by another perpetrator they know, and that the abuse is perhaps going unnoticed and unreported.

It’s a grim reality we don’t want to think about, but it’s a reality we can’t afford to ignore. For our children’s sake.

ν Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com.

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Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.