Law enforcement, social service and child advocate groups from across the Garden State gathered in Newark on Monday for a first-ever Child Abuse and Neglect summit.

State Sen. Pres. Steve Sweeney (David Matthau, Townsquare Media NJ)

One of the featured speakers at the event was state Senate President Steve Sweeney.

"It's critically important to bring attention to the issue of child abuse and fund programs to prevent it, because these are young people that have had their innocence stolen from them," Sweeney said. "We have to do everything we can to try to help these young people get back to as normal a life as they possibly can."

He said abused children are often reluctant to come forward about their experiences.

"A lot of young people that have had this kind of crime committed to them hide in the shadows, 'cause they're ashamed and they're afraid," Sweeney said. "You can only imagine when someone steals someone's youth."

Even those who do acknowledge being victims of abuse, according to Sweeney, may believe they did something wrong.

"So honestly, this is to raise awareness to ensure young people that people do care," Sweeney said, "and we need you to come forward when something bad like this happens so we can prevent it from happening to others."

Evelyn Mejil, executive director of Wynona's House Child Advocacy Center, organized the event. She called called child abuse a silent epidemic.

"More than six million children are abused every year," Mejil said. "These children deserve a platform. We need for our children to be invisible no more; we need for our victims to not be overlooked."

Mejil said 1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused during childhood, and 1 out of every 6 boys will also be abused, but "a lot of the things that get hidden in the shadows are the emotional abuse, the neglect -- those are under-reported."

She said there are more than 90,000 reported cases of child abuse a year in New Jersey, one of the highest totals of any state in the nation.

"If you suspect child abuse, call the hotline: 1-800-NJ-ABUSE," Mejil said. "That is the hotline when you feel that any child is at risk. The community must unite to make sure that we are intervening and providing the services our children need."