Taking care of your well-being as a researcher of online child sexual abuse offenders

Matt Richardson

January 16, 2023

Matt Richardson, the Director of Intelligence and Child Safety for the Anti-Human Trafficking Intelligence Initiative (ATII), a US-based NGO that combats global human trafficking, gives some tips on how to take care of your well-being as someone researching child abuse offenders.

The research on child sexual abuse referred to in this blog does not involve the actual viewing of child sexual abuse material; it and leverages subscription darkweb tools that do not load or render CSAM content to avoid exposure to illicit content.

For 3 years now, on a regular basis, I have conducted online research into heinous and violent cases of child sexual abuse. These investigations span the Darkweb and Deepweb and incorporate open-source intelligence (OSINT) to help identify child abusers. In some cases, my work has involved identifying and prioritizing online spaces for law enforcement to investigate. My research does not involve the viewing of actual CSAM content (e.g. photos, videos), nor does it involve communicating with offenders. It does however involve finding offenders and forums through the use of search terms and the in-depth study of large volumes of offender conversations, including descriptions of CSAM content or sexual crimes against children that they have, or aspire to, to commit. This is done to generate leads for Law Enforcement for further investigation. Although I am extremely committed to my job, reading this content does take a toll and it does affect me. My triggers are subtle, innocuous, and can be unpredictable. Recently I came to the realization that if I wanted to be well and have longevity in the child protection space, I needed to take my own care and well-being seriously. It is my hope that by sharing my personal experiences, and self-care strategies, I may help others in our space.

Here are some of my tips on how to take care of your well-being as a researcher of child sexual abuse offenders.

1. Understand your vulnerabilities

In my experience, I have learned that it is important for me to both recognize and understand my vulnerabilities. I have discovered that exhaustion is my primary red flag. If I am exhausted, I tend to experience some blurring in my vision and “cognitive fog”, for example; short-term memory loss and difficulty processing simple things. I get irritable and experience anxiety. When I am exhausted, I take a “pause” (if it is not an emergency) for even a night or two to recharge.

2. Never ‘underestimate’ an investigation

One mistake I have made in the past is ‘underestimating’ an investigation before I truly know what I am getting into. I have walked into operations expecting something that I am familiar with and that I can handle with no difficulty only to find I am on the thread of something far more horrible than I expected. I now mentally prepare the same way for every investigation and frame my mindset accordingly.

3. Collect your thoughts and focus

I have a simple process that helps me mentally prepare to gear up for, and down from, the work. For me making a concerted effort to collect my thoughts, mentally distance myself from my regular and family life, and then proceed with an intense focus is the first step. Upon doing so I am mentally prepared and conditioned for the task at hand and am able to conduct my investigation in a clear, objective, and focused manner.

4. Take breaks and do something nice after work

When I feel I am finished with my work I bring myself back from the intensity of the investigation by watching a few episodes of a favorite (light) show. If you find yourself unable to gear down or “come back” I have been advised by my therapist to take a 30-second cold shower and/or engage in vigorous exercise (I recommend both).

5. Talk to a professional counselor

Above all else, having a supportive family and organization is the foundation – I, fortunately, have both. It is important to see a professional counselor for your individual needs and strategies. If possible, it could help to have a ‘friend’ in the field to talk to about experiences and concerns that you may not be comfortable sharing with someone outside of the child protection space.

Overcoming barriers to accessing support

Fear of being misunderstood or unduly scaring people when disclosing feelings is one of the reasons why I initially did not seek help. Trauma is a natural and normal by-product of this work. Accepting this and seeking treatment is both responsible and essential for mental health and wellness.

I was worried that if my true feelings and experiences became known I would be viewed as weak and unfit for duty. The reality has been so much different for me in that I have enjoyed tremendous support and kindness from my peers. Although we have a long way to go in normalizing this conversation, most of those in this space understand the dark nature of the work and the impacts it has on investigators.

6. Establish a self-care plan

Learn to identify your triggers and develop strategies to avoid and/or manage them. Establish a self-care plan that works for you.

These tips helped me avoid or manage my triggers and overall become more resilient and better equipped to constructively manage my trauma. However, we are all unique and we all experience trauma differently; we need to do what works for us. Therefore, to better understand what could work and be right for you, I recommend seeking professional help if needed.

The research on child sexual abuse does not involve the actual viewing of child sexual abuse material.