Abstract: Impact of Child Sexual Abuse Material Investigations Among Law Enforcement Personnel: Distress, Coping, and Holistic Well-Being (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

All in-person and virtual presentations are in Mountain Standard Time Zone (MST).

SSWR 2023 Poster Gallery: as a registered in-person and virtual attendee, you have access to the virtual Poster Gallery which includes only the posters that elected to present virtually. The rest of the posters are presented in-person in the Poster/Exhibit Hall located in Phoenix A/B, 3rd floor. The access to the Poster Gallery will be available via the virtual conference platform the week of January 9. You will receive an email with instructions how to access the virtual conference platform.

Impact of Child Sexual Abuse Material Investigations Among Law Enforcement Personnel: Distress, Coping, and Holistic Well-Being

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Hospitality 2 - Room 444, 4th Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer O'Brien, PhD, Assistant professor, University of New Hampshire, Durham
Kimberly Mitchell, PhD, Associate Professor, University of New Hampshire, Durham, Durham, NH
Ateret Gewirtz- Meydan, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Haifa, Israel
Background and Purpose: Police investigators and forensic examiners working with child sexual abuse material (CSAM) likely experience emotional and psychological distress related to the content of these complex cases, however, research has not yet explored investigator and examiner well-being. It is likely that investigator and examiner distress may contribute to CSAM cases being addressed in inequitable ways, thereby perpetuating systemic forms of oppression. The current study sought to understand the degree of psychological distress experienced by investigators and examiners with experience working on CSAM cases. Within this broad aim, we sought to examine the cognitive coping skills employed to mitigate distress, how these coping skills impacted holistic well-being, and whether they were associated with case outcomes.

Methods: Anonymous surveys were completed by police investigators and forensic examiners across the United States. Participants were recruited through a variety of means connected with the National Criminal Justice Training Center. The current sample consists of a sub-group of 258 investigators with CSAM exposure who completed a survey about their experiences involving one particularly “stressful or challenging” case. Likert scales and open-ended questions were provided. Qualitative responses were double coded using a grounded theory approach.

Results: Findings highlight dialectics between emotional versus cognitive responses, and victim versus system focus. Specifically, results indicate that investigators and examiners experience high levels of distress associated with their exposure to CSAM cases. The degree of distress was negatively related to the cognitive system-focused cognitions. Participants who believed they were able to handle their role in the investigation, viewed the case as an opportunity to test their abilities, felt it was an opportunity to become stronger professional, and reported that an arrest had been made experienced fewer negative impacts on psychological well-being. However, participants who focused on victim’s suffering, thought of their own children/families, or felt an emotional connection to the victim (e.g., knew the victim outside of the investigation) felt greater distress. Negative coping was also explored and related to lower levels of well-being, with some participants noting overwhelm in their daily lives that they attributed to their role as an investigator or interviewer, difficulty deriving joy with friends and/or family, and general distrust of others. Participants noted less distress in departments where wellness was prioritized, such as those with Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task forces.

Conclusions and Implications: Findings indicate interventions that target how investigators and forensic interviewers working on CSAM cases frame their role may impact their psychological well-being and ability to continue to work on these distressing cases. In addition, findings highlight the differential emphasis placed on arrest within law enforcement, which may contribute to retrospective assessments of distress. Implications, including changing emphasis to a victim-centered rather than punitive approach, will be discussed.