AUGUSTA — Whether measured in terms of shattered lives or future crime, Mainers pay a heavy price for child abuse and neglect.

That was the message delivered Tuesday when law enforcement and child abuse prevention experts gathered at the State House Hall of Flags to mark the beginning of Child Abuse Prevention month.

“Sharply reducing abuse and neglect will save tens of millions of dollars in Maine, as well as immeasurable pain and suffering,” Augusta Police Chief Robert Gregoire said. “It will also greatly reduce the number of children growing up to be violent criminals.”

The Maine Children’s Alliance found that more than 4,000 cases of child abuse were substantiated in 2012. That number is up from the previous year, Gregoire said.

“Those of us in law enforcement know that there are thousands more who go unreported and undetected each year,” Gregoire said.

Commissioner Mary Mayhew, of the Department of Health and Human Services, said there were 20,000 referrals of possible child abuse last year. The agency has hired 16 additional investigators, but Mayhew said the work remains daunting for the 660 employees at the Office of Child and Family Services.

“Their work is critical and at times overwhelming,” she said.

Col. Robert Williams, of the Maine State Police, said prosecuting cases of child abuse requires a cadre of agencies, from police and prosecutors to medical professionals and advocates.

“Using this multidisciplinary team approach not only allows for a stronger legal case to be built, but more importantly, insures that the welfare of the child is the primary focus,” Williams said.

He said the development of Child Advocacy Centers — where representatives from law enforcement, child protection, the district attorney’s office, mental health, medical and victim advocacy work together to conduct interviews — has greatly improved the approach to investigating cases. The team makes decisions about investigation, treatment, management and prosecution of child sexual abuse cases.

Williams said the State Police Computer Crimes Unit expanded its mission two years ago from performing only forensic examinations of computers to investigating people who possess child pornography. Investigators are finding those who possess the images are increasingly likely to abuse a child sexually. Williams said the computer crimes unit makes weekly arrests charging possession and viewing of child pornography.

“The evidence in these investigations often consists of thousands and thousands of images and videos of the absolute worst sexual abuse of very young children,” Williams said. “These images are from all around the world and almost all the victims in these photographs are never identified.”

A new nonprofit agency, The Child Victim Identification and Rescue Network, has been established to help identify the victims.

“This is a very worthy cause,” Williams said. “Even if only one child victim is identified, it is worth it.”

Gregoire said there is overwhelming evidence to suggest children who suffer from abuse or neglect are more likely to commit crimes as adults, Gregoire said. About 5 percent of those children, or about 200 Maine children each year, will become violent criminals as adults.

“Year after year, abuse and neglect create more violent criminals in Maine,” Gregoire said.

Most of those adults will spend the much of their lives in jail or prison.

“Reducing child abuse and neglect is not just the right thing to do; (it) is a proven way to cut future crime,” Gregoire said.

Attorney Charles Soltan, board chairman of the Maine Children’s Trust, said the state saves an average of $7 in future costs for every $1 spent now to prevent child abuse.

“We know we can save not only the children, but also taxpayer dollars down the road,” Soltan said.

Gregoire said victims who do not grow up to commit crimes are still more likely to be unemployed, have marital problems and are more than twice as likely to commit suicide.

“Research shows that most abuse and neglect in high-risk families can now be prevented,” Gregoire said. “Doing so will spare thousands of children in Maine from pain, agony and despair, and save lives.”

Soltan said part of that prevention effort is helping parents learn how to create a safe environment for their children.

“The more we can do to educate young parents the better off we are,” he said.

Patrick Walsh, director of Broadreach Family & Community Service, said that education effort includes connecting parents with available resources. Help is available, he said.

“There may be parents listening to this who are not extremely confident in their training,” he said. “We can help.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642 [email protected] Twitter: @CraigCrosby4