Last year the Chattanooga Police Department handled 442 cases of child abuse, almost half of which were sexual abuse.
Even so, officials say the crime is grossly underreported and they're turning up the heat this month on community awareness and prevention.
Patrol officers have attached blue ribbons to their cars for April to raise awareness and Lt. Anthony Easter, commander of the Family Justice Center, said it's all about getting people to speak up when something is amiss so children don't continue suffering in dangerous situations.
"We would much rather have overreporting and screen out the cases that are not legitimate than to have underreporting and have real victims out there being abused repeatedly," Easter said.
Part of what makes the issue tricky, Easter said, is the topic is wildly uncomfortable. Many people are unwilling to get involved with such sensitive cases without knowing the full story, but he said it's better to be safe than sorry.
"Accidents happen. Kids get hurt and it doesn't always mean they're being abused, but we don't want the real cases slipping through the cracks," he said.
Reporting is complicated by the fact that 90 percent of the time, victims know or are related to their abusers, who often are authority figures or breadwinners. Victims may be unwilling to step forward or others might be unwilling to get involved.
"Like many of the family-related offenses — domestic violence, elder abuse-type cases — more often than not, that is a relative or caretaker that does the abuse," Easter said.
While people might be uncomfortable with reporting suspected abuse, which can range from physical or sexual assault to simple neglect, the Chattanooga officers who actually handle these cases have to grapple with what they see and hear day after day.
"When I first started working this stuff, I couldn't believe it," Easter said.
More than one officer working in the special victim's unit has run the risk of medical complications as a result of job stress. Easter said he's had officers whose doctors have told them to take time off because their blood pressure was edging into unhealthy territory
"Anybody with a heart is going to realize these cases do take a toll on you," Easter said. "Psychologically, emotionally and physically. It's the pressure surrounding these types of cases. "
He and others know the vast majority of people agree that child abuse is wrong, but motivating people to actually report a hunch is a challenge for groups like the Children's Advocacy Center of Hamilton County.
Kristen McCallie, the advocacy center's interim executive director, is working to ramp up outreach efforts and educate as many people as possible about the realities of child abuse and what steps the community can take to curtail it.
"Everybody's a reporter, but not everybody knows that," she said.
Tennessee law requires mandatory reporting of child abuse, but the onus falls primarily on educators and other caretakers who interact with children consistently. The center provides community education programs to those adults who are often on the front lines of reporting.
McCallie and her center coworkers aim to serve children coping with the unimaginable. The nonprofit is nationally accredited by the National Children's Alliance and provides forensic interviews, medical examinations and therapy while working closely with law enforcement.
"We provide an evidence-based curriculum to almost every single Hamilton County schoolteacher," McCallie said.
"We've been partnering with the school guidance folks — last year we trained almost all the elementary school teachers and this year we trained almost every single secondary education teacher through this curriculum called 'Darkness to Light.'"
The guidelines and necessity of mandatory reporting jumped to the forefront in Hamilton County last year following the rape of a high school student at Ooltewah High School and school officials' failure to report the incident.
More recently, three teachers were suspended from The Howard School in March for allegedly failing to report child abuse. The investigation of that incident is ongoing.
Despite what people may think, McCallie said, abuse is a cancer that affects children from every demographic — no community is immune.
"We get kids from every single ZIP code. This is not something that is a discriminatory crime," she said. "Perpetrators come from all walks of life, just like victims do."
Of the children served by the center in 2015 and 2016, 58 percent were white, 33 percent were black and another 4 percent were Hispanic. The gender gap was relatively small, with males making up 40 percent of the children served.
For those wondering when or how to contact authorities about potential child abuse, the advocacy center has outlined standards on what to look for and what to do on their website at cachc.org.
Obvious signs of physical abuse should be red flags, but sexual abuse may be harder to spot. Easter said people should call in "if you notice an adult deliberately trying to spend extra time with a child, trying to be alone with that child for an extended period of time or not respecting their privacy."
Witnesses are encouraged to call the abuse hotline at 1-877-54-ABUSE. Callers can remain anonymous and those who are interested in following up will receive a case number that allows them to see whether the call has been handled or not.
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp