CENTRAL POINT, Ore. – Detective Mike Vanderlip pours through maps of Southern Oregon from his small corner above central point’s police department. The interactive map on his computer is crowded with pins, each one corresponding to a report of a child victim of online sexual abuse.
“People believe that somehow these events, the abuse, are happening elsewhere,” said Vanderlip. “There are local victims, and there are children being abused in this area.”
Vanderlip is a member of an elite team of high-tech forensics experts – one of fewer than a dozen local agencies country-wide rooting out the worst kinds of exploitation.
“Child victims are our highest priority because of course they don’t have the ability to speak for themselves or protect themselves,” said Detective Sergeant Colin Fagan, a Forensic Examiner on the task force.
From their office in Central Point, the task force detectives field tips from federal agencies. They get notifications of illegal postings from file sharing services like Dropbox and Google Drive, as well as social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram.
They actively patrol an infinite online space looking for illegal content that can be traced to a local address.
“I need to prove that that, in fact, came from that location, that the provider for the internet service assigned it to that person,” said Vanderlip.
Their task is a never-ending uphill battle. The Child Victim Identification Program, a national repository for exploitative online content, reports 96-million images of suspected child abuse from the past decade. Each forensic examiner on the team will go through thousands upon thousands of those images throughout the course of their career.
In order to stop child pornography, these detectives have to become part of that world.
“They just have such incredible exposure to things that are so incomprehensible that they have a higher risk for burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma,” said Anne Kellogg, a psychologist specializing in law enforcement and emergency personnel.
In 2013 alone, the task force arrested enough people to amass 300 years of cumulative jail time. But for every person arrested, many more are vetted, and many more remain.
In order to cope with that burden, the team turned to Kellogg. Now the only civilian embedded within the task force, she works with members weekly to strengthen their resolve.
“Noticing their breath, and noticing their muscle tension, and noticing their heart rate – things that they can do,” said Kellogg.
Each exercise is designed to keep them emotionally grounded and to get them back into the lab in the hopes that the hours of work will yield an address, an opportunity for on-the-ground detective work, and a chance to finally look an online predator in the eye.
“The satisfaction of being able to stop some of these people abusing children and saving children from abuse is really what keeps me going,” said Vanderlip.
Click here to see part 1 of the three-part series on the High-Tech Crimes Task Force
Click here to see part 3 of the three-part series on the High-Tech Crimes Task Force