Safeguard Spotlight

Ingesting Poison: Adapting to Exposure to Child Pornography

By Nicole Cruz, Ph.D. 

Do you remember the first time you had to view child pornography in the line of duty; do you remember the first images or videos? Can you recall the first case, when investigating crimes against children, that you had a “disgust” response? What’s the first case pertaining to child sex crimes that you remember?

These are some of the questions that I ask when safeguarding persons routinely exposed to child pornography in the line of duty. These questions can elicit a variety of responses, all shaped by investigators’ different life experiences, as well as their differing abilities as they cope with viewing unimaginably invasive crimes, particularly those against children. Some common responses to the questions come to mind. I was shocked; I knew that people did these kinds of things, but, really? Am I normal if I don’t remember the first time I had to view child pornography? I thought I was just going to see nude, underage kids, not this. I just remember afterward, taking a break, walking down the hall, and feeling “unreal.” I had the images coming back into my mind that week, especially when I was alone.

A child looks out from a laptop screen. ©

These responses all are “normal,” meaning commonly experienced by persons newly exposed to child exploitation materials (CEMs). However, having to view child pornography in the line of duty is such a derivation from what people outside of law enforcement see that the standards of adapting normally to exposure to child pornography is not common knowledge.

Is there a rule of thumb about psychologically adapting to the images? If so, what is it? As a clinical psychologist working in an FBI unit that annually safeguards over 1,500 persons exposed to child pornography in the line of duty, we have a giant opportunity and the means to analyze such a measure, and we must share our lessons learned.

Investigators having these first experiences often wonder if they are “okay.” They also fear that describing their deep disgust to others would earn them the perception of not “tough enough” to do the job. Although many of the investigators accepting these jobs had some foreknowledge about exposure to CEMs in the line of duty, few knew that they would see children and infants molested and raped, and even fewer imagined that they would need to keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves. Much like the victims of these crimes, many investigators feel like they have to keep a shameful secret; all persons impacted by these crimes, including those who have to view the images to prosecute the perpetrators, take a vow of silence. Perhaps, they think that their silence about these experiences could make it as if they have not been impacted.

Psychological Adaptation Responses

An outline of the process of becoming acclimated to exposure to child pornography can help to demystify the acclimation process and provide an honest look at how exposure to child pornography impacts people. This four-step process proves applicable for persons who voluntarily engage in duties involving such exposure. It may not apply to persons who do not volunteer or who face a higher risk for not coping well (e.g., developing vicarious trauma response) to exposure to CEMs.

1) Disgust Response
Some investigators liken this to being hit in the face, jumping into a pool of freezing water, or having the rug pulled out from under them. Others (e.g., former paramedics or homicide detectives) who have had prior experience with egregious crime scenes state that they can rely on their coping skills acquired from their previous work when exposed to child pornography. But, even these skilled persons describe a “first homicide scene” experience. The first response leaves most investigators with a sense of urgency about compartmentalizing the material. At this point, they may have intrusive images or disgust feelings that appear sporadically outside of work, nightmares about the images, intrusive feelings of anger, and other disruptive experiences. Other investigators already acclimated will not have this experience.

2) Feeble Efforts to Compartmentalize
Investigators often feel the need to make the material less personal, or less toxic, by explaining it away (e.g., maybe it was the angle of the photo), by pretending that the material does not disturb them as it truly does, or by trying to switch off the thoughts, feelings, or images in their mind. In all accounts, the investigator tries to slowly deal with the impact of the full realities of the crime, including the implications of what people are capable of, how prevalent it is, and how unstoppable it seems. They have begun to ingest poison. However, they may notice that they continue to have uncomfortable thoughts and reminders of the content. Investigators may continue to reexperience images when, for instance, they see a video or bathe their infant, and they may realize that they must process further or try to avoid working this detail altogether.

3) Dealing with the Realities of the Crime
I consider this training the most important period of the psychological adaptation process. At this point, investigators must, in some way, acknowledge the harsh realities of this crime. They may have thoughts that they must deal with, not dismiss. Human beings not only do this, but it is relatively prevalent. Sometimes, innocent children suffer for many years without reprieve, justice, healing, or care. Not all victims are innocent—some comply, even though they are children. Investigators must realize that they cannot completely stop this crime from occurring; it most likely happens in their neighborhood. Between the lines, in the deeper parts of the investigators, once they acknowledge these realities, they also, mostly unconsciously, realize that they can cope with the complete realities of working these cases and may find that they can compartmentalize better following this phase.

“Is there a rule of thumb about psychologically adapting to the images? If so, what is it?”

4) Coming to Terms with the Images and the World
At this stage, many investigators describe learning how to cope with not just the images but the tarnished reality associated with it. They find that without becoming paranoid or thinking of themselves as calloused, they can cope adequately with the images and gross realities of what people do to each other, as well as how commonly it happens. These investigators do not dwell on what they see or personalize the images to make sense of the material. They allow themselves to process things from an analytical perspective, label the images, and see materials (CEMs or not) from an investigative angle without feeling guilty, realizing that they must do so to work effectively. Investigators come to know that they cannot completely stop this crime from happening, but they are satisfied to do their part. I tell them at this point that they have “hit their stride,” and they often agree. What they may not realize is that their worldview has been deepened and that their desire to persist in bringing justice into this realm may bring about a sense of healthy pride and self-definition, as well as an awareness of their positive role in the world.

Available Resources

Last, I advise investigators who work these cases to be aware of where they are in terms of response stages. I also educate them about how I have seen many examples of how these responses are cyclical. For example, those who have hit their stride and then see a particularly egregious video or an image that triggers them often find themselves responding as if they are newly exposed (back to the first response). However, it will not be as acute as their first response to such exposure, and they may feel more comfortable this time around as they have done this before. Investigators tend to be more confident with their ability to process the material, as well as the worldview that goes with it, and they proceed more rapidly through the response stages and find themselves quickly coming to terms with the newer toxic material. Also, because investigators have to filter the images and videos through their personal filters made up of their own life experiences and thoughts about sexual abuse issues, the time frame through each response stage will vary.

Perhaps, you feel as if you are stuck in the earlier phases of adapting to child pornography. If so, it is my recommendation that you seek out a representative from your agency’s employee assistance unit for advisement and potential remedial options.

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.

“Perhaps, you feel as if you are stuck in the earlier phases of adapting to child pornography.”