Safeguard Spotlight 

Mentoring and Support

By Nicole Cruz, Ph.D. 

Peer support—it sounds so cold and clinical. What does it actually mean, and how can it make a positive difference in personal circumstances? People working cases involving toxic images, such as those pertaining to child pornography, often provide informal peer support without realizing it. When many such persons first view a particularly disturbing image or video, they have a “normal,” or “disgust,” response, which may range from feeling anger to having thoughts, like “Just when I thought I saw it all....” I ask these individuals how they responded to having feelings of disgust. Many reply “I talked with some of the people on my squad.” That is peer support.

People conducting these investigations often tell me that they do not want to talk to their spouses, friends, or other personal contacts about the details of their work, typically adding “And they really don’t want to know about it, either.” Therefore, the social world for persons exposed to child pornography may become somewhat stratified into those who have seen these images and those who have not. Persons who have had exposure to them have learned how to compartmentalize these toxic materials by using their own experiences and worldviews as the toxin filter. Often, it is a relief to hear comforting words from such peers: “Yeah, I responded that way, too. That’s normal.”

Stock image of two men in suits talking. ©

I am not sure if people working these cases know that they have the power to provide support to their coworkers simply by making themselves available to talk, listen, and normalize others’ responses. Or, if unsure how to help, they can recommend that their peers call someone from the FBI’s Undercover Safeguard Unit (USU) to discuss their symptoms and receive needed support.

I want to encourage those of you who support others in this regard or desire to do so. Every week, I hear about how you successfully have helped people cope with such exposure. To this end, a formalized peer support model could assist you in getting new persons working these toxic cases to become well-acclimated.

  1. Designate squad mentors for new hires.
  2. Sit with new members during first exposures—sanitized and less disturbing images (e.g., those involving older victims, nonviolent cases) prove most suitable. Afterward, ask them if they had any thoughts, feelings, or physical responses to the viewings. Normalize their reactions; if unsure of the normality of their responses, refer them to USU or an employee assistance unit (EAU) for clarification.
  3. Respect their privacy. Confidentiality is crucial. As a rule, do not discuss persons’ responses with others. If they have an extreme reaction—very rare—share with them the need to speak with a mental health professional (e.g., USU or EAU).
  4. Let new hires inform you when they feel ready to view images alone.
  5. Allow for viewing of pictures before watching videos (muted sound if possible). Sit with new members during first exposures to videos.
  6. Educate new peers about the ability to slowly acquire a coping style (e.g., desensitization) to enable them to continue doing this work. Let them know that developing an effective coping style can take up to about 6 months.
  7. Educate new members regarding the need for ongoing support when they see particularly disturbing images and videos.
  8. Listening and acknowledging discomfort can prove effective in making new hires feel supported. Do not hesitate to refer them to USU or EAU if appropriate.

Simply formalizing what many squads already do informally can help set up more resources for people exposed to child pornography. Additional support for such persons can make significant contributions to their wellness as they work these challenging crimes.

Dr. Nicole Cruz, formerly 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.