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CSA: why we must manage vicarious trauma among investigators

The psychological damage the repeat exposure to images of child sexual abuse (CSA) does to investigators makes retaining them for the fight against offenders a problem. And with the technology and funding available to law enforcement failing to keep up with the abusers, morale is at an all-time low.

Patrick Horgan is a former Metropolitan Police officer who now works for Griffeye, a technology partner that provides UK forces with software that combs through CSA images.

Mr Horgan said CSA investigators were “really trying to make a difference in a really important crime area”.

“In the past there’s been very little support for investigators in the digital area. They see the most horrendous things and they see it repeatedly. I don’t think anyone can say they’re as supported as they could be,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges investigators face is the sheer volume of material. In 2018 there were 45 million CSA images online, double the amount of the previous year and 40 million more than five years ago. Law enforcement is struggling to keep up with the speed the material is generated as funding lags way behind and abusers are “ahead of the technology curve”.

Mr Horgan said the most dangerous and prolific offenders were likely to be the most technologically savvy.

Eric Oldenburg is North America Law Enforcement Liaison officer for Griffeye. He worked as an officer for the Phoenix Police Department and spent 15 years investigating internet crimes against children.

He left the job in 2005 and used to tell his supervisor: “We’re drowning in cases back there and we’re not drowning at the surface of the water – we’re 20 feet below the water level looking up and thinking ‘how are we ever going to get there?’.

“It’s a sinking feeling because you know you’re never going to get yourselves caught up, not with the current manpower levels and not with the attitudes of the public not understanding what we’re doing,” he said.

Both Mr Oldenburg and Mr Horgan said the public’s perception of the content of these images was completely off, and they were ignorant to the fact investigators were continually viewing the rape, brutalisation and often torture of small children as young as three.

They believe this to be a contributing factor to the underfunding for the fight against the ever-growing amount of CSA images.

“It's such a horrible, horrendous problem that people in society don't want to face it head on,” said Mr Horgan. “I think there's a better understanding of officers who go to a murder scene.”

Mr Oldenburg said he can still see the first image of child abuse he ever saw in front of his eyes today and always will, despite seeing so many after. He said technology like Griffeye can be used to protect investigators from viewing traumatising image after image day in, day out.

Griffeye uses algorithms that de-duplicates images and recognise links and clues that could aid investigators, reducing their exposure and therefore reducing their “vicarious trauma”, a term Mr Oldenburg says is used in the field to describe when someone is traumatised by watching the trauma of others. This, according to Mr Oldenburg, means they can do the job for longer.

He said there were not many people willing to do the job in the first place who also have the aptitude to learn the technology that goes with it.

Mr Oldenburg said it takes about three years for someone to understand the technology and become efficient enough at the role to do it independently and it takes about the same amount of time for “someone to raise their hand and say ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, I’m done, I can’t look at this shit anymore’”.

He went on to say: “What’s terrible is you have this investigator who is willing to do this working so they can further a noble cause and then you send them into the battle field and you don’t give them the tools necessary to fight it properly so they get injured and leave.

“We have to get a bullet proof vest for people doing this job and the way to do that is technology such as Griffeye and the ability to collaborate globally.”

Mr Oldenburg said there are no borders when it comes to child exploitation.

“We have to have this global collaboration, we have to have help from technology companies and we have to help from the private sector to develop tools and technology like Clearview AI to help us be better at what we do.”

Clearview AI is a facial recognition technology used by law enforcement agencies in the US and Canada to help identify victims and perpetrators.

“The computer doesn’t get fatigued, the computer doesn’t start drinking, the computer doesn’t start fooling around on their spouse and get divorced – it just does its job and doesn’t feel that vicarious trauma,” Mr Oldenburg said.

Mr Oldenburg also described the suspicion from people at social events when they learnt what he did for a living and even fellow officers because of what his job entailed.

“People look at you funny like there’s something wrong with you. And that really sinks your morale,” he said.

Mr Oldenburg said how supervisors can also be unsupportive in that they have the same attitude as the public about the material in that they “don’t care to look at it, they don’t want to know what it is”.

“It’s hard when you feel like you don’t have support from the public, a lot of time your high level supervisor doesn’t want anything to do with it, they won’t give you the proper funding you need,” he said.

Mr Horgan said it was time for government to push the issue forward.

“It will take courage to push this through, especially on the basis that it doesn't need a single act. This needs to be a continuous programme that's taken forward,” he said.

“The scale of problem is increasing to such a degree that it needs an absolute focus on it, and it can't be ignored in favour of the other latest flavour of the day. It needs a continuous focus to keep moving forward and change it.”

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