Harrowing, yet rewarding job of the child abuse investigators.
Investigating the dangerous predators who abuse children online is a harrowing – and sometimes thankless – job.
A huge part of what we do is the safeguarding of children –that’s what we are here for
The close-knit team tasked with policing the internet in Lancashire deals with the darkest corners of the web on a daily basis.
They have helped arrest hundreds of suspected offenders in little over a year, yet the nature of their work means it goes largely unnoticed by the general public.
Lancashire Police set up the Online Child Abuse Investigation Team (OCAIT) in April 2014 to gather intelligence about online offenders and bring them to justice.
Their work on and around the Fylde coast has steadily increased since then, with more than 30 investigations started since April.
Based at Lancashire Police’s Hutton headquarters, they are a committed and enthusiastic group – as recognised by a recent report by the police watchdog.
But despite being an “incredibly rewarding” job, the horrific images of abuse these people see every day can take its toll.
Det Sgt Simon Challenger joined the unit in November and part of his job is keeping safe the people who are paid to protect the county’s children.
He said: “It is traumatic looking at pictures of people being abused.
“If my staff are concerned about an image they have seen, they can talk about it.”
And with the workload increasing, so much so that the force is looking to double its forensic capabilities, the strain on staff can be significant.
As reported in Friday’s Gazette, senior officers in Lancashire say they are “staggered” by the number of child abuse cases being reported to them.
In 2014, OCAIT handled 233 investigations across Lancashire, at least 40 of those in the force’s West division, which covers the Fylde coast, Lancaster and Morecambe.
Since January, that figure has already hit 217 – and 60 of those are focused on this side of the M6.
A single investigation could see officers sift through hundreds or thousands of pictures of unimaginable child cruelty.
Det Insp Jane Newton, who heads up the team, said: “For anyone to mentally withstand seeing the images they do is very difficult.
“I don’t think there is a particular kind of person that can do it – it’s about having an emotional resilience.
“But it is really important work that we need to do to protect our communities and safeguard children.”
Det Sgt Challenger said a “cultural change” within the force meant there is now much more support for people who are affected by the job.
“Staff welfare is massive,” he added. “I have been in the organisation for 14 years and we are having discussions about staff welfare that we didn’t have 14 years ago.”
At full capacity, OCAIT is a 12-strong team supported by other detectives as well as forensic IT experts who help find evidence stored on mobile, tablets and computers.
But despite the horrendous images his staff witness on a daily basis, Det Sgt Challenger said they are reluctant to leave the team – even when it is for their own good.
He added: “I am rotating staff all the time to take away the continual nature of the work.
“But it is incredibly rewarding, so rewarding that it can be an obstacle for somebody to say ‘I would like a change’.”
Days in the OCAIT office start early, as the team prepares for dawn raids at the homes of suspected offenders.
Det Sgt Challenger said: “We start with an early morning briefing and then go executing the warrants with search-trained officers and detectives from around Lancashire.
“We make arrests every single day. A huge part of what we do is the safeguarding of children –that’s what we are here for.”
The team investigates packages of evidence against offenders based on intelligence that comes in from a range of sources, both nationally and locally.
They can then spend months building a case against offenders where necessary to stop them posing a risk to children.