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Child Porn Material Takes Its Toll On Investigators


By: Mark Kernes,
Posted: 11/04/2009

DURHAM, N.H.— Fully one-third of the members of the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force have had problems arising from their exposure to child pornography, according to a study recently completed by the University of New Hampshire's (UNH) Crimes Against Children Research Center—and nearly 40 percent of participants called for more mental health services to be made available.

The study, "Work Exposure to Child Pornography in ICAC Task Forces and Affiliates," authored by researchers Janis Wolak and Kimberly J. Mitchell, was based on detailed information received from online questionnaires directed to commanders of 564 ICAC Task Forces and their affiliates in the Spring of 2008. Among the more striking results were that 90% of Task Force commanders were very or somewhat concerned about the psychological effects of viewing child porn on their investigative personnel—a condition that Tim Henning of Associated Sites Advocating Child Protection (ASACP) knows only too well.

"When I've described this job to other people in the past, I compare it to other front-line jobs, professions where people have to see horrible things on a regular basis," Henning, ASACP's Technology and Forensic Research Director, said. "That would include emergency room staff and coroners and police and firefighters and that sort of thing. You just do develop a professional detachment after a while. You have to; it's a defense mechanism.

"In the beginning it was extremely shocking and difficult and all that stuff, but you develop a skin for it after a while," Henning continued. "I started doing it [reviewing child porn sites] in '96, and did it for 10 years, so that's a long time ago. When I first started, I had nightmares, and the material was quite difficult to deal with, but after a few months, I got more used to it. Fortunately, ASACP, like many other hotline staffs, provides access to a therapist; some require reviewers to speak to a therapist on a regular basis."

According to the UNH study, the most common problem found among ICAC personnel was "hyper-vigilance around children—always suspicious of adult males in particular," with the wife of one investigator noting that after her husband had viewed child porn related to a particular case, "He came home... very upset and wouldn't hug either of his two daughters and was very distant." Other investigators reported "insomnia, stress, depression and weight gain that seemed related to exposure to child pornography."

Task Force commanders reported that 23 percent of their investigative personnel had asked to be transferred from the unit, while another 27 percent had had fellow employees intervene due to work-related problems, many of which were due to on-the-job stress rather than looking at child porn images. In fact, 82 percent of current investigators reported that they had not seen any problems related to child porn exposure, and 85 percent of participants agreed that they found "very much" satisfaction with their work because it helps children.

Among the study's recommendations were that personnel should be educated as to the possible negative reactions to viewing child porn; that possible adverse sexual reactions to the material should be openly discussed; and that employees should have the opportunity to turn down assignments that might require viewing child porn.

Henning noted that it used to be easier for him to deal with child porn images in his work.

"Early on, a lot of the content was preexisting content and it was recirculated, very old images recirculated over and over again, and you would see them on all the commercial sites," Henning explained. "That's no longer the case. But once you'd seen the handful of perhaps a thousand images, you'd be seeing the same ones over and over again, and you knew in your mind that many of those victims, it had happened to a long time ago and they're adults now. It's not like there was a child in immediate danger. But now, a lot of the commercial sites are harvesting images from closed boards, which is their way of getting a lot of new content without having to produce it themselves, so that's harder to look at."