According to the Department of Children's Services, more than 350,000 referrals went out across the state of Tennessee last year from the state's child abuse hotline, and about 470 of those referrals landed in Rhea County.     

Rhea County Sheriff Mike Neal allows one investigator to focus solely on domestic violence, child and elder abuse cases. He says the move has proven to be a successful formula for investigations and prosecutions. 

Investigator Rocky Potter was working at a gym when the Sheriff recruited him 16 years ago. He's known as the tough guy, but anyone can see he has a soft spot for kids.

Those who know him say he never gives up on an abuse case, even if it goes unsolved for years.  Sheriff Neal says it's that kind of determination that makes a difference. 

Potter carries a "monster stick" around as a reminder.  

"We had a little boy who was 6-years-old, he was being sexually assaulted by a family member, and he had nightmares. He would wet the bed," Investigator Rocker Potter said. "He would keep that stick with him so if the monster came in, he would protect himself with the stick." 

Some children face real monsters. It's Potter's job to protect those children.

"He brought it to me," Investigator Potter said.

Reporter: "What did he say?"

Potter: " That he didn't need it anymore because that person was put in jail." 

Potter investigates between 70 to 100 child and elder abuse cases in Rhea County each year. On average, about 30 percent of those cases end in an arrest or indictment. Potter says those cases have a conviction rate of more than 85-90 percent. 

There are some cases he won't talk about, but hopes one day will be solved. 

"That one bothers me," Investigator Potter said, pointing to an unsolved shaking baby case file. "I keep her file. It's sitting right up there as a reminder."

Rhea County is the second largest in the 12th Judicial District, which is made up of six counties. The district is the only one in our viewing area that could provide record of how many cases end in charges. 

District Attorney Mike Taylor has taken note of Potter's efforts and what he calls a high conviction rate.

"The team investigative efforts in Rhea County have resulted in successful investigations, prosecutions and a high conviction rate when it comes to abuse cases," District Attorney General Mike Taylor said.

"One of the biggest differences in talking with the D.A.s in other counties is that Rocky is specifically assigned to child abuse investigations and that's not true in every county," Julie Anna Johnson, lead DCS investigator, said.

Once a tip is reported to the state's abuse hotline, it's then investigated by a child protection investigative team to determine if there will be a prosecution. 

Lead Investigator Julie Anna Johnson says because the 12th Judicial District does not have a Children's Advocacy Center, victims must travel for forensic interviews and counseling.

Trips can take anywhere from an hour to three hours. 

"We have to send folks to either Chattanooga or Cleveland or up to Cookeville because we don't have one," Investigator Johnson said.

Potter's goals include creating an Advocacy Center in Rhea County.

"Some of our families, they can't afford to drive to Lenoir City, so we have to either pay their gas money or find them a ride," Investigator Potter explained. 

Investigator Potter is also pushing for educational programs in county schools so kids know how to recognize and report abuse. He often works with school nurses and teachers on how to identify an abused child in need. 

"I enjoy working with the kids," said Investigator Potter. 

For Investigator Potter, it's more than a job. It's a mission to see to it no child in Rhea County needs a monster stick again.

There will be a community forum Wednesday, February 28th at the Rhea County DCS office to discuss the need for a Children's Advocacy Center in Rhea County from 9:30 am-11:30 am EST. 

To report child abuse or neglect in the State of Tennessee, call the Child Abuse Hotline at 877-237-0004.