How Ohio’s internet investigators cope with the stress of having to view child pornography
How Ohio’s internet investigators cope with the stress of having to view child pornography
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Canton police detective Bryan Allen watched a video on his computer that disturbed him so much that he left work and went home to process what he saw.
Allen is 22-year veteran of law enforcement and a member of the Cleveland FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force and the video was of a man raping a boy, no older than two years old. Allen is required to look at these sorts of videos as part of his job, and his job takes its toll.
“Some of them just take it out of you,” the 48-year-old detective said.
Allen and the hundreds of other investigators who work child pornography and exploitation cases nationwide must reckon with the short- and long-term psychological impact of repeatedly being exposed to images of helpless children being violated.
Three investigators interviewed by cleveland.com spoke of the taxing nature of the work. All three have to undergo a yearly psychological evaluation to ensure they are still mentally capable of working cases involving child pornography.
The caseload is overwhelming. Each case requires that investigators view acts of brutality inflicted among the most vulnerable in our society.
The investigators said they have found ways to cope, from deciding when and how to look at the images to finding outlets to relieve the resulting stress. Some commiserate with their fellow investigators.
The devil in a hard drive
Fifteen years ago, then-Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason sat at his desk and lamented the dangers of the internet for disseminating harmful material.
“This internet thing is like the devil,” he said. “It opens the world up to everyone and everything.”
But the amount of child exploitation present on the internet then pales in comparison to what exists today. Since 1998, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children fielded more than 25 million tips of child exploitation, the organization’s spokeswoman Christine Barndt said. More than half of those tips came within the past two years.
Despite increased prosecutorial efforts at the local, state and federal levels, the cases brought to court often include larger and larger amounts of illegal files, especially as the expansion of broadband and advances in technology make sharing a large number of files much easier than it was in previous years. Prosecutors often require analysts and investigators to look at each image and video saved on a suspect’s computer or hard drive.
Michael Sullivan, an assistant U.S. attorney in Cleveland who heads the unit that prosecutes federal child-pornography cases, encourages investigators to look at every image and video contained on a hard drive seized from a suspect in an investigation. That can range anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of thousands of files. The U.S. Probation Office considers the number of files found on a hard drive, along with the graphic nature of the abuse depicted in those files, when it calculates a recommended prison sentence for defendants in federal cases.
Sullivan also encourages agents to look at all of the files because they may reveal previously-unknown victims. Investigators typically send that information to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Some computer programs that investigators use to scan hard drives can catalog files that were identified in other cases, but investigators must physically look at the rest.
Beth Medina, executive director of the Innocent Justice Foundation, said investigators who view child pornography can suffer from what is known as “vicarious traumatization,” an affliction that turns empathy for a victim into a form of suffering. The mental health community now recognizes that it can be a part of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Allen said he has worked as a detective on other types of cases, from homicides on down. Child-pornography investigations are different.
“There you heard about everything because your investigations were based on what the victims and everybody were telling you and where the evidence led you,” he said of other cases. “But now, it’s more like you see everything you heard about before.”
And the number of files for any one case can be overwhelming.
Allen said he recently seized a five-terabyte hard drive for an ongoing investigation. He said he was able to copy 3.5 terabytes of the data before the hard drive crashed his computer. But even though he couldn’t yet view the entire contents of the hard drive, that partial search turned up 2.25 million files, all of which he needed to look at.
The work requires someone equipped to handle the stresses that come with repeated viewings of child sexual abuse.
“A lot of people come in sometimes and say ‘I’m ready for this, I can do this,’ but then four or five months into the job, or even a few weeks in some cases, they may say, ‘Hey, this isn’t for me,’” said Dave Frattare, commander of the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. “Obviously there’s no shame in that.”
The same goes for prosecutors. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland has two prosecutors who almost solely handle child-pornography and exploitation cases. While they don’t have to view the number of files that agents do, they must view some in order to prosecute a case.
Other assistant U.S. attorneys split their time between child pornography and other types of cases. Those who work the cases do so voluntarily.
“Other people get burned out just seeing the pain and suffering of kids on a daily basis,” Sullivan said. “It wears on them and everybody’s got a different composition. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Music, TV, painting and therapy
The investigators often do their work in isolation.
Allen, who has worked out of the FBI’s Canton office for six years, said he closes his office door “because nobody else really wants to see that stuff.”
The Ohio task force, which is chaired by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley and has members in police departments across the state, operates in a cordoned-off office in the Justice Center in Cleveland.
The investigators try to limit the amount of time the look at a file, but they’re required to give it enough attention to determine whether the images or videos depict child exploitation.
Every agent handles the delicate task in their own way. Before sitting in front of his computer, Allen turns on a television that serves as background noise. The show itself doesn’t really matter.
“It’s not like you can sit and watch it,” he said. “It’s just, I can’t do it and sit in silence and do it. It gets nerve-wracking.”
Frattare said he turns off his overhead lights and switches on a little lamp he has in his office. He turns on orchestral music. It’s not too distracting, but it still helps.
“You can still focus on what you’re looking at, what you need to do, but it kind of puts you into a different mindset, at least for me,” Frattare said.
Task force investigator Miranda Helmick said she turns on music and often takes breaks. She also does undercover work by chatting with suspects online, either posing as a young girl or a parent, and often performs both tasks at the same time.
She estimated that she can get through about 2,000 images in a half-hour.
Frattare encourages the task force investigators not to begin and end their days by looking at the images, so they have time to unwind before they go home.
As investigators work these cases, they find different outlets for support. To a lot of them, family is important, as are hobbies.
Frattare said he has dabbled in digital graphic design and in photography.
“It’s mainly just going home and disengaging as much as possible from the job,” he said.
For Allen, who served in the Air Force before joining Canton police, he said his children are now adults and that he might not be able to handle this work if they were as young as the children in the videos. His wife is also very supportive of his work.
“It’s easy to talk to her,” he said. “We’ve been married for over 25 years now. We met while we were in the service. It makes it easier, I think.”
Frattare and Helmick said they are able to talk to their fellow task members. In fact, Frattare said building a sense of camaraderie has been somewhat of a focus this year. Frattare recently brought in supplies for investigators to paint art.
“Which sounds so simple, but it was probably the best thing we did as a group for wellness,” Helmick said.
The task force also enacted a “wellness policy” in June designed to give investigators the tools to cope with what they see.
Under the policy, task force members who view child pornography must meet for group sessions with a mental health professional. Members must also do one-on-one sessions with a mental health professional to talk about their job and how it may be affecting their lives.
The new policy also encourages investigators to hold wellness programs and trainings and create plans on how to handle the stresses of the job.
Frattare said it was modeled after recommendations from the Innocent Justice Foundation, and Medina said she did a training with the Ohio task force in 2017.
“The people who want to do it and can do it and are great at it,” she said. “We want to make sure they can do it for the long haul.”
Putting the bad guy behind bars makes it worth it
All the agents said that the convictions in the cases make it worth it.
Helmick said completing an examination of a hard drive is always rewarding “because not only do you have the evidence to prosecute that person but you’re also possibly identifying your victims.”
While many of the images and videos shared online are decades old, newly identified victims are entered into a database maintained by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Allen agreed and said all the cases he has investigated that were charged have led to federal convictions. He pointed out that penalties in the federal system are often much more severe than for those charged in state court.
Allen didn’t want to go into detail on the case that made him leave his computer to de-stress. Court records show it involved images of a 2-year-old tied up with rope and raped by a man. It was one of numerous videos and photos Allen found on a computer during an investigation into a New Philadelphia man now serving more than two decades in federal prison.
“These cases at the state level, from what I’ve seen, end up with as little as probation, and to me, to me that would not be worth it,” Allen said. ”... For me, mentally, to go through what you have to go through and see a guy not even get jail time? That’s why I like doing the cases federally.”
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