Matt McFadden on the Psychology of Child Exploitation Investigations

As most of you know by now, I’m currently training to be a psychotherapist, because I don’t have enough strings to my bow already. I know I want to practise existential psychotherapy but I’m not yet clear on whether there’s a particular group of clients I’d like to work with. I’ve recently been thinking, however, about working with law enforcement officers, particularly those who are engaged in investigating cases of child exploitation, human trafficking and counter terror. I have the advantage of understanding these industries from the inside, and hopefully with the benefit of psychotherapy training I’ll be able to make a difference to the field by helping people to deal with some of the things they’re seeing. 

I interviewed Matt McFadden from BlackBag Technologies recently for an article in Forensic Focus, and I found his answer to my question about the importance of psychological intervention interesting.

I asked:

The psychological aspect of investigations is increasingly being viewed as an important element, particularly when dealing with serious crimes such as child exploitation and human trafficking. What can trainers and managers do to help improve the psychological wellbeing of their trainees and team members? 

Matt replied as follows.

Thank you for bringing up this important matter. Having worked child exploitation cases for 13 years, I understand the potentially damaging impact exposure to media depicting the sexual exploitation of children may have on forensic examiners. The content describes horrifically evil acts committed against children.

Exposure to this graphic content will change you. Some examiners may fare better than others, but it affects us all in some way. One examiner may become very over-protective of their children while another may struggle to sleep at night.

One typical reaction is compassion fatigue. It is where you know the importance of these cases and cannot rest until they are completed. I know I experienced this, needing to regularly work my scheduled days off to ensure these cases did not sit on a backlog. Some symptoms may fall in line with post-traumatic stress, also referenced as secondary traumatic stress, and need to be taken seriously.

Trainers and managers need to support their teams carrying out the vital mission of working these cases. Managers need an official plan in place. This plan should provide methods by which trainers first expose newer examiners to this material and to identify the stress symptoms it may cause.

Trainers and peer examiners need to share how they handle the stress. All examiners working these cases should be encouraged to and have an identified source to share with. Communicating openly is important.

Examiners should have access to psychological debriefs by certified staff on a regular basis and access to them as needed with a “no shame” policy. Some officers feel the need to be tough and to act like they can handle anything. We had some of the toughest SWAT team members not wanting to even step foot in our forensic lab because they didn’t want to accidentally see the graphic content we had to regularly review.

It is okay to admit this type of work is difficult. Limiting your exposure to the material is wise. Some agencies have wisely applied a rotational assignment to varying types of digital forensic examinations removing a consistent exposure to child exploitation cases. Some forensic tools have features that try to help by identifying the material for you. Please use these features but also use caution to ensure your exams are thorough.

If any symptoms of post-traumatic stress surface, seek assistance immediately. It is ok to have a normal reaction to being exposed to abnormal circumstances. Needing help is ok. Managers and trainers need to understand that examiners conducting these case investigations are performing a noble task of protecting, rescuing, and ensuring our children are safe from those who seek to victimize them. None of us sign up to be exposed to this material, but we will “wade into the sewer” and tolerate the unbearable exposure to hold those accountable who harm our children. Managers, please support your staff in any manner possible with this mission.

We also talked about lots of other interesting subjects; you can find the full interview on Forensic Focus.

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