Safeguard Spotlight

Coping with Line-of-Duty Exposure to Child Pornography/Exploitation Materials

By Nicole Cruz, Ph.D.
Depiction of a child gaining peace and security by embracing a stuffed animal.

Most officers who investigate or assist in cases involving exposure to child exploitation materials (CEMs) wittingly or unwittingly spend time and energy learning how to master the skill of compartmentalization—using their personal psychological resources to separate themselves from the toxicity of these graphic images and videos. Compartmentalization helps investigators operate within a space of wellness where they can continue to work without having these materials bleed excessively into their relationships, religious faith, and sense of safety in the world. Their success in this endeavor proves crucial to preserving what they hold most dear.

Individuals commonly assume that compartmentalization is a one-dimensional skill that everyone does the same way. However, as a clinical psychologist who provides, through testing and interviews, robust annual psychological assessments to a team of approximately 500 investigators exposed to CEMs, I have witnessed individuals compartmentalize in a variety of ways as a method of coping. I see some of the brightest, most highly skilled professionals use creative, thoughtful ways to process their responses to CEMs so they can continue to work on these cases. The end result may look the same for every individual—the person has found a way to cope with the unthinkable.

Many members of the team have grown accustomed to people asking them, with a look of dismay and, perhaps, disgust, “How can you do that job?” They may not know that they are asking a thoughtful, intricate question: How do people process and cope with the sight of infants and children being exploited, tortured, degraded, and raped? Upon closer inspection, I have found that people use various coping styles that access different personal strengths so that they can survive the content of CEMs. Compartmentalization skills may manifest themselves as strong or flexible mental abilities, an innate ability to repress, or willful or unconscious engagement in behaviors that make investigators “shift gears.”

Many officers haphazardly stumble upon their strengths—they have an uncanny ability to use their cognitive labeling skills to quickly categorize images, thus distracting them from the personal or emotional perspective. Others, through painful trial and error, finally discover their way; for example, they decompress from work stress during their drive home and then spend time with their children to separate themselves from the job. Some investigators bravely discover that they should not do this kind of work. Others, sadly, try to cope in ways that they imagine one should— perhaps, like their colleagues. In comparing themselves with others, they muddy their own process of discovering their coping style and cast doubt on their abilities.

Some of the most reassuring support that I have provided to investigators has been in the validation of their coping strengths, as well as their vulnerabilities, through the clinical interview and psychological test findings. Investigators must recognize their strengths and have insight into their personal coping styles. It normalizes the process for them as they realize that they comprise part of a larger community doing this type of work. This practice also may encourage officers to stop trying to emulate their colleagues’ coping styles and discover their own, which always is the more resilient option.

Potential vulnerabilities correspond with every coping option. As a rule, it proves helpful to remember that any coping skill can be dysfunctional if it becomes excessive, rigid, or distorted with use. For example, officers who, as a coping style, expertly label disturbing images may find that they also numb their emotions when dealing with family stressors. Thus, investigators must develop one or more strong relationships (e.g., coworkers, a spouse, family members) with people close to them and willing to let the officers know if they have changed in ways unhealthy for them or those around them.

While psychologically assessing officers exposed to CEMs, I have discovered eight common coping styles, along with accompanying vulnerabilities. Investigators can identify their top three and consider the potential vulnerabilities and ways to counteract them.

1) Emergency Workers

  • Naturally compartmentalize well
  • Have had none or little obvious work/home spillover
  • Typically have had a history of working with critical incidents (e.g., have seen dismembered bodies in the line of duty)
  • Use compartmentalization skills that feel familiar


  • Unconscious crossover stress from work, noticed more by others (e.g., increasing grumpiness)
  • Harder to treat—individuals do not want to admit a “weakness”
  • May have more psychosomatic difficulties (e.g., “I feel great, but I have high blood pressure.”)
  • “Numb” themselves in situations outside of work (e.g., “Why is everyone around me so emotional?”)

2) Athletes

  • Diffuse stress physically (e.g., exercise, yoga)
  • Engage the mind-body connection
  • Typically are disciplined (e.g., exercise 3 or more times per week)
  • Stay fit—increase overall sense of wellness and competency


  • Must rely on a rigid schedule and a high energy level
  • Depend on an external coping skill and are vulnerable if unable to exercise and without another coping style

3) Challenge Seekers

  • See difficulties as challenges
  • Have a resilient perspective
  • May try different coping styles to master tasks and stress
  • Sharpen existing coping skills


  • Sometimes apply undue pressure on themselves
  • May let their guard down (become complacent) when they feel comfortable, giving the perception that they have reached mastery level and, thus, needing to continuously use this coping style

4) Team Players

  • Actively engage with coworkers (e.g., use dark humor)
  • Develop supportive relationships on and off the job
  • Can vent, or express their feelings, well
  • Use healthy processing of emotions
  • Make excellent colleagues/teammates
  • Create a safe environment in which people can process their responses to images


  • Although team players, have to work solo
  • May have a team comprised of distant relationships or, perhaps, featuring persons who cause stress

5) Ritualists

  • Develop rituals (e.g., playing with kids, prayer) to diffuse stress or to help compartmentalize
  • Have developed a creative and hardy approach to coping
  • Engage in therapeutic coping that could have healing properties
  • May engage their existential/spiritual beliefs
  • Make good use of time—less time consuming in the long run to develop a ritual


  • May need to complement rituals with other coping methods

6) Professionals

  • Focused on the evidence, not the personal element
  • Mentally diffuse/compartmentalize the content
  • Use what psychologists may label as a cognitive strategy—increases coping abilities


  • May minimize the strength of the evidence
  • Could have difficulties processing the affective component and its impact, or when they need a break (enough is enough)

7) Pragmatists

  • Were “volunteered” to do this duty—was not an option
  • May just be focusing on what is practical to them
  • Want to work this duty partly because it works well with their schedule or commute
  • Appreciate the additional income or compensatory time
  • See this job as means of career advancement


  • Vulnerable to having significant negative impact (vicarious trauma) if they do this duty against their wishes, particularly if they are experiencing high, pervasive levels of distress
  • May indicate poor prioritizing if they chose this for practical reasons, are being distressed, and they continue to work this duty
  • They or the system they work in may not fully appreciate self-care as a necessity when their work involves exposure to CEMs

8) Believers

  • Highly motivated with a sense of duty or calling for their work
  • Rely on their instinct to protect children
  • Can persevere despite difficulties because of the meaningfulness of their work
  • Are hard workers
  • Have high levels of “compassion satisfaction”—a great buffer for this type of work
  • Believe and know that their work has great purpose


  • May not stop when they should
  • May minimize their personal difficulties
  • May not invest in support to the degree of what they need
  • Most vulnerable to burnout (personally and systemically)

So, if investigators handle cases that involve exposure to CEMs and someone asks them the question, “How do you do that kind of a job?” they can have additional insight into the true response. In summary, they can say, “I can do it because I have found a way to.” The quiet, indestructible instinct to protect children can be one of the most powerful motivators.

A sad man with the quotes, "How do you do that kind of a job," and, "I can do it because I have found a way to."

Dr. Nicole Cruz of the FBI’s Undercover Safeguard Unit (USU) prepared this Safeguard Spotlight. USU provides guidance and support for personnel exposed to child pornography and child exploitation materials. The unit can be contacted at 202-324-3000.