Oneida Middle School Principal Kelly Posey and students from various schools lead a group of 1,100 walkers down the "Four Lane" in Oneida as part of the annual Nancy Swain Watters Memorial Walk on Friday, April 12, 2019 | Ben Garrett/IH

Nearly two decades after the doors of the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands first opened, the agency’s numbers continue to increase each year.

This year, the Children’s Center — which, as Tennessee’s first rural child advocacy center, helped revolutionize the way child abuse is combatted in small towns — will serve close to 500 children. And, if averages hold true, the agency will receive about 100 new referrals this year.

The numbers underscore an unfortunate truth: Child abuse and neglect is a bigger issue in Scott County than many would like to believe.

“It’s more of an issue than people want to realize, unfortunately,” said Kellie Walker, executive director of the Children’s Center. “We don’t know if our numbers are going up because more children are being abused, or because more people are doing a better job of recognizing the signs and reporting it. We like to think the numbers (of children being abused) aren’t going up, but that more people are reporting it.” 

April is national Child Abuse Awareness & Prevention Month — a month designated for educating Americans about child abuse. Each year, the Children’s Center and the Scott County Shelter Society host the Nancy Swain Watters Memorial Walk to commemorate the month. 

The walk serves as a fundraiser for each agency, with businesses throughout Scott County signing on to sponsor the event. But it also serves as an awareness tool — underscored by the hundreds of students who enjoy time out of school to take part.

And while the number of children served by the Children’s Center continues to go up, so does the number of children who participate in the walk.

“It grows every year,” Walker said. “This year, the Oneida schools allowed fourth graders to walk, and that brought the numbers up even more. Every year it just keeps getting bigger and better.” 

Despite heavy rainfall to start the day, and the threat of additional rain, there were about 1,100 who took part in the walk. Walker said the primary goal of the event is awareness.

“Each step we take, we try to be mindful of the victims, whether it be child abuse or domestic violence,” she said. “Each step along the way, we want to think of those who are in those shoes.”

The biggest benefit of the walk for the Children’s Center, Walker said, is putting the agency front and center for the kids, letting them know that there’s a place to turn to.

“We try to keep it short and sweet during the opening ceremonies,” she said. “But with the t-shirts and things, really it’s just a celebration of the day — a celebration of prevention. We want it to be fun for the kids and the community. It’s an ugly topic, but we try to make friends with those kids. Myself, our staff, the volunteers — we all want to make as many connections as we can that day.”

The unfortunate reality is that in a crowd the size of the one that assembles for the walk each year, it’s inevitable that there are participants who are the victims of child abuse.

“The numbers that one in 10 children will experience sexual abuse by their 18th birthday,” Walker said. “If you take a crowd of 1,000 children and do the math, you’re talking about quite a few kids there that have been abused.”

While the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands is never more visible than at the annual walk, when hundreds of kids walk through the streets of Oneida from city hall to Plateau Electric Cooperative on the south end of town, the agency is busy throughout the year, providing services for children who have been victimized by abuse and neglect. The eight-person team at the agency not only assists law enforcement and the Department of Children’s Services with investigations into allegations of abuse, but also provides counseling for children who have been abused or neglected.

“We see a lot of drug-endangered children,” Walker said. “A lot of kids that come through have never been exposed to things like their own toothbrush or their own bed — things we take for granted — because the money in their home has been spent elsewhere, on drugs instead of the basic necessities of that child’s life. That’s a form of abuse in and of itself.”

In many cases, the Children’s Center is able to provide therapy for children who’ve been removed from their home and are being cared for by grandparents or other family members. 

Walker has been the executive director at the Children’s Center since 2009. As she’s watched the agency’s numbers grow over the past 10 years, she’s also seen the community improve in its response to child abuse.

“I feel like we’re doing a better job as a community, as a whole, in addressing the issues,” she said. “We’re not just letting it be a slap on the wrist for the offender anymore. We’re getting more justice for the victims of child abuse. We’re doing a better job recognizing abuse and helping that situation.”

Still, there are too many instances of child abuse that goes unreported — forcing children to continue living in neglected or dangerous conditions until the abuse is finally exposed . . . if it ever is.

“My advice for the community is if you have a gut feeling that something is wrong in a child’s life, do something,” Walker said. “A person oftentimes suspects that something is wrong but they don’t necessarily want to get involved. They’re afraid they’ll make somebody mad or they feel like they need all the facts before they call to report it. That’s not how it should be.

“Unfortunately, we see a lot of instances where it’s obvious that something has happened, but the person who realizes it believes that it’s so obvious that someone else will call and report it,” she added. “If you suspect a child is going hungry, if they’re sleeping all day in class, if they’ve obviously been abused, let someone know. You can report it anonymously.”