by Sgt Andrew Chaulk
The challenges and stress we face investigating child sexual exploitation are many. Significant to crushing caseloads, mountains of paperwork, exposure to child exploitation material on a near daily basis (and for some multiple times a day), executing search warrants, examining mountains of data, interviewing suspects and victims, to name but a few, can knock you off your feet. I’ve found it happens with no warning, leaving you with a whole host of unpleasant emotions to try and deal with. I often feel as though I am one mouse click away from seeing the thousandth worst thing that I have ever seen. And just when I think I’ve seen it all, the internet vomits up something that I can’t even comprehend. But your job demands that you finish the case, finish the interview, finish the exam, finish the report, and finish the mission.
The simple fact of the matter is you can’t do it alone, nor should you try. Trust me, I’ve tried many times in my career and it’s never worked. I’ve been a cop for 23 years, with the ICAC for over 12 years, the last 3 years full time, so I’ve got a pretty solid basis of knowledge and personal experience when it comes to what the job can do to you. I’ve talked with numerous people; investigators, forensic examiners, social workers, prosecutors and support staff who, for the very best of reasons, want to shield their family from their job. With no intent of malice they have segregated themselves from the most valuable support network, their family.
That’s where the danger can start. Isolating yourself. No person is equipped to deal with the aftermath of this job. That’s a harsh reality, not likely to find its way on an ICAC recruiting poster. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Sure it’s difficult and can knock you off your feet like a grizzly bear just hit you, but you can get up, dust yourself off and drive on. However you can’t do it alone. I’ve found that my brain has limited capacity for trauma. I can experience my fair share of it, but without a support network and an outlet for it I always end up at the same spot, worse than where I started. Confused and angry as to how I ended up where I was.
Long gone are the days where my job stays in my locker with my uniform at the end of my shift. I can very easily drag all sorts of terrible home with me. And when I get home, who has to deal with the fall out of my bad day? My family. Which I think is patently unfair. But I’ve done it, too many times to count and frankly too many times that I don’t want to remember. This job can take a lot from you and you won’t notice that it has until it’s late in the game. The changes are usually small and happen over time.
I am not advocating that you tell your family the nitty-gritty details of what you do, that could traumatize them, but you’ve got to let them in. If you’ve had a bad day, and let’s be honest here, a bad day in the ICAC world can be exceptionally bad, whether you choose to tell them anything or not, you will wear that bad day like a suit. Everyone will see it, but they won’t know why. Your kids could think they’ve done something wrong to upset you and now they feel bad. Your significant other my see you grow distant and feel confused or angry, not knowing why. I am terrible at hiding my emotions, I wear them all on my sleeve. I say all this because it has happened to me. Now your bad day has infected the house. A little bit of knowledge can go a long way. A little bit of knowledge can bring understanding, which is significant. If your family knows why you’re in a mood they can give you space, support you, help you through it, whatever it is that you need.
Now the $64,000 question…how do you do it? Let’s start with your significant other. Let them in, give them permission to help you, an ear to listen to you rant or vent, a shoulder to cry on or they can offer some perspective. My wife knows that my job is very complicated and stressful. She knows that on any given day I will have to view child pornography. I’ve told her that the material is terrible and horrible. She knows that dealing with child pornography is just one aspect of my job. There is the stress of testifying, preparing search warrants, preparing for the next raid, working undercover, etc. With this knowledge she checks in on me, frequently. She can often see it before I am willing to see it myself. Here is a small example which I’m sure will sound familiar to some of you; I came home one particular day in a foul mood. It seemed that the day did everything it could to frustrate me, anger me and get in the way of progress. I came home and my youngest son did something so small that it shouldn’t have warranted a response from me at all. Like most 8 year olds he listens when he wants to. I often joke that his ears are merely ornamental, there to provide symmetry to his face. So this night I asked him to get ready for bed and had to ask about a half a dozen times. Each time I asked I felt anger welling up inside of me. And my son was going to be the unfair recipient of all my frustration from the day. I started barking at him and before I went nuclear and the house went to DEFCON 1, my wife intervened. She had seen how I was when I walked through the door and calmly intervened. I felt like a heel for overreacting and apologized to my son. But it happens. Later in the night, once the DEFCON level dropped to a respectable 4 or 5, I was ready to talk to my wife.
My wife has been on this crazy ICAC ride with me almost from the beginning. She is very good at reading me to the point that when I worked undercover she could sense it the moment I walk in the door. This process of bringing her into the fold was not overnight nor was it easy. I fought it for a long time. I now know very clearly that it is imperative that she knows. I would have it no other way.
Your children, depending on their age will not be able to understand fully. My youngest, the one with the symmetrical face knows that I arrest bad guys on the internet. I tell him if I’ve had a bad day that I sense will challenge me for the night, but don’t get into specifics. He always asks a ton of questions and I tell him what I can. The other stuff I say is adult stuff and he shouldn’t worry. I tell him I’m always safe and have a lot of people that I work with that help me. He loves funny stories from my days in patrol so that it usually an easy back up for me. I know it sounds basic but it’s a starting point. The void of information will be filled with whatever his imagination can drum up. I try and answer all his questions the best I can. My oldest, who is now 18, has lived his whole life with his dad as a cop-poor kid. Over time he has learned what I do and what my job entails. Once he earned the privilege of a smartphone we had many discussions about the dangers of the internet and I’ve been able to roll in some examples of what I’ve seen. Just remember it’s got to be age appropriate.
I am not the Zen master of all of this. I sometimes get it all wrong. But I keep trying. My family keeps trying. I realized a long time ago that this job can take a lot from you, if you let it. Like anything, understanding the problem is the first step to getting ahead of it.
Sergeant Andrew Chaulk
Sergeant Andrew Chaulk has been a member of the South Burlington Police Department since 1995 and a member of the Vermont Internet Crimes Against Children task force for over 12 years. He is a member and coordinator of the Undercover Operations Unit. He also spearheaded the development of a mental health policy for the Vermont ICAC.