Child porn cases take toll on investigators

FBI special agent Melissa Morrow, who supervises the Washington Field Office's child pornography task force, talks about the psychological difficulties her agents face when engaging suspects online, and viewing photos and video of children being abused.
By Del Quentin Wilber
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

D.C. police detective Timothy Palchak spends his days trawling the Internet for people willing to send him child pornography. It isn't easy work, pretending to be a pedophile. in online chats, instant messages and telephone calls, Palchak must enter the psyche of men he describes as "the scum of the Earth."

He tells his targets that he molests children, even infants, and describes his deranged sexual desires. He feigns anxiety at being caught by police and expresses sympathy for a suspect's fetishes. Before long, Palchak is bombarded with vile photographs and videos, all depicting sexual abuse of children. The investigator scrutinizes the images to build his case and, he hopes, to rescue victims.

Palchak is one of hundreds of police officers and FBI agents who are leading the federal government's war on child pornography, a priority of the Justice Department. The government's tactics have sparked intense debate. The plight of victims, who live with the knowledge that their abuse endures in cyberspace, has been well documented. But little attention has been focused on the toll such cases take on investigators, who loiter in the Internet's seediest places and are required to study images that are too graphic to describe in a newspaper. The abuse is so disturbing that investigators rarely talk about it, even with their families.

"Those sounds -- the crying, the screaming on the videos, are embedded in your brain forever," said Palchak, 38, who has been investigating child pornography since 2005. "The screams are complete terror. They are bad. But you have to battle through it and listen to it. The eyes, they are just like death. There is just no life in those eyes."

Experts say the job is one of the most arduous in law enforcement, and it has changed the agents and officers in profound and subtle ways. When they see children on the street, they wonder whether they are recognizing someone from a video or photo. They regularly run long distances to sweat away the images. They fret about Web cameras in the homes of relatives, thinking that nothing good comes from them. On commutes home, they cleanse their minds before embracing their children.

Not everyone can handle the assignment. Local police and the FBI sometimes have difficulty filling slots on a task force of about 20 agents and officers that investigates child pornography for the bureau's Washington Field Office. Before joining, agents and officers are carefully screened. They must pass a battery of psychological assessments, which continue once they are on the job.

Some investigators burn out. One agent cried during a presentation, and another left after investigating just one case. A prosecutor recalled how a stoic FBI agent broke down in tears after reviewing hundreds of brutal videos and images of children being raped. Prosecutors openly worry that their best investigators are running out of steam.

"You have no idea how hard this job is until you try it," said FBI agent Melissa Morrow, who supervises the Washington task force. The squad has made about 60 arrests in the past year on child pornography and related charges in Northern Virginia and the District. Nationally, the FBI makes about 1,000 such arrests annually.

Aware of police activity

For years, agents and local police pretended to be children visiting online chat rooms, and then they would arrest adults who sought sex with them. More recently, they are impersonating pedophiles interested in swapping child pornography, court records show. Because of publicity about the cases, pedophiles are wary.

"You promise you are not a cop," Palchak wrote to a suspect last year in an online chat, pre-empting the question he almost always gets.

"Oh yes," the man responded.

"ok," Palchak wrote.

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