The head of Scotland Yard’s child sex offences unit and Europol’s Chief of Staff have warned how vital counselling and professional help are to the welfare of anyone investigating child abuse.
The message comes as Justice Lowell Goddard opened the independent inquiry into historical abuse in England and Wales last week, announcing it could last until 2020. It will examine whether public bodies and other non-state institutions failed to protect children from abuse.
Simon Danczuk recently admitted that he was stepping back from campaigning against child abuse and seeking help for depression. Experts empathised with the Rochdale MP and told The Independent how important a support network is when investigating these crimes.
Detective Inspector Philip Royan has worked in Scotland Yard’s Sexual Offences, Exploitation and Child Abuse Command since October 2012, overseeing what is known as the ‘paedophile unit’. His team’s primary targets involved tracing those distributing material or people grooming children, abusing them online or meeting and physically abusing them.
“One group of officers who spend most of their time categorising imagery ready for court are exposed to quite high levels of imagery,” DI Royan said. “Or there are those going through the front doors of paedophiles home conducting searches and interacting with their families.
“They all volunteer. You can’t push a person into this role. To try and offset the impact of the distressing work pre-selection vetting occurs and we have a system in place involving a number of visits to a psychologist every year, depending on roles and exposure, primarily to graphic material and cases. We might make adjustments depending on what the psychologist says.”
Brian Donald, a former Grampian detective from the serious crime division now Europol Chief of Staff and based in The Hague, stressed how committed child abuse investigators are.
“They work long hours, they feel they can’t do enough for these people they have never met or seen other than in very horrible situations. That’s the type of thing that can lead to burn out if you’re not careful. The work is very challenging, very interesting and very rewarding, but it’s not the sort of thing someone says ‘I’d love to that’. Investigators have a particular skill set and experience and a high degree of commitment.”
Having been on the Piper Alpha inquiry team Mr Donald also knows how important counselling can be. “I saw some horrendous things, working in the body recovery team. Counselling was insisted upon. We were big detectives who didn’t want it but I think we all appreciated it and stress counselling was built into the system, including nowadays for sexual exploitation.
“It’s something the [Europol] Director [Rob Wainwright] and I were sensitive to. Coming from the UK it was something that was common. We now have stress counselling for our staff on Focal Point Twins, the agency’s child sexual exploitation unit. I was very keen we had a compulsory element – the team has to attend a counselling session at least once a year and as and when they want it at any time.”
Ian Pace, a leading campaigner who has been closely involved with the direction of the Government’s inquiry, first became involved in child abuse during the trial of Michael Brewer, Director of Music at his former boarding school.
Mr Pace subsequently hosted a petition for an inquiry into abuse at elite music schools that led to hundreds of people contacting the City University London music lecturer with terrible stories of their experiences.
“This has been a major part of my life since early 2013, as I have continued to research and campaign, going from musical education to wider paedophile networks. Nothing prepares you for the personal impact of this. The experience of regular exposure to harrowing stories, and direct communications with survivors, can be overwhelming and traumatising, evoking powerful feelings of intense sadness, despondency, and anger. Everything else in life can seem so trivial in comparison, whilst you see other types of cruelty, exploitation, indifference to other’s misery through another lens.”
Mr Pace said he regularly sees an excellent therapist and devised hia own coping strategies for dealing with his work. “I do not envy what those serving on the national inquiry will go through in the next five years, and have the highest of respect and admiration to them for doing this. These people are human beings who will be confronted daily with some of the most distressing information anyone could imagine.”
Kelly Alleyne, one of the Child Protection Managers at the National Crime Agency’s CEOP Command, formerly the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, has spent the last 10 years dealing with child abuse investigations. She has worked within the Victim Identification team, looking at images of child sexual abuse to try and identify and locate victims and offenders.
She said: “You don’t know how you’ll react to these kinds of images until you start the job. You prepare yourself, you know it won’t be easy, but for me I began by taking it one day at a time. As technology has changed and we’re now dealing with digital material and sound [instead of just images] that can be particularly challenging – especially if you have a child that is distressed and you hear that. It can be very distressing and that can impact in you.”
Mrs Alleyne said there were certain times over the last decade when she had to take a break from her work, as she did when she was pregnant with her second child.
“Some of the material I was looking at concerned babies and toddlers so while I was pregnant I just couldn’t look at that material – and there is a lot of support [at work] for that from the management team. I think viewing these images didn’t impact on you there’s got to be something wrong. The ones involving children similarly aged to mine impact on me more.”
Despite the difficulty of her work Mrs Alleyne said she has never wanted to switch to another role. She said: “You are looking at these images for a purpose – to safeguard children. The most brilliant thing about the job is finding that child. It’s the most rewarding part, knowing that you have taken them away from that abusive situation.”