Innocent Justice Foundation’s Heather Steele talks about the SHIFT Wellness Workshop for ICAC investigators

SHIFT wellness mental health for ICAC investigatorsChild pornography is one of the worst type of crime scene images that can exist, involving not just violent sexual abuse but also often torture and other depravity against children of all ages. Investigators who must view these images can suffer a form of post-traumatic stress disorder even after they are assigned elsewhere. But until very recently, they didn’t have the resources to get the help they needed.

That’s changing thanks to an Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) grant awarded to the Innocent Justice Foundation, a nonprofit that helps law enforcement get the tools they need to capture and convict online predators. IJF’s SHIFT Wellness program is designed to help investigators, their supervisors, and even their family members involved in helping them cope with what they see.

How SHIFT Wellness started

“When I founded Innocent Justice in 2007,” says IJF president and CEO Heather Steele, “Dr. Michael Bourke [an advisory board member] joined us for an initial advisory meeting to understand ICAC needs, and he wanted to make sure we included some sort of ‘inoculation’ program in our strategic plan to prevent investigators and analysts from developing vicarious trauma.

“We put it on the back burner as we built up our other projects. However, at the Columbus ICAC conference several investigators and commanders came up to the booth, in public, and often in front of hundreds of other investigators, and let us know they needed mental health now. That was a big wake-up call that we needed to move into action immediately.”

Steele and her team reached out to ICAC commanders from around the country, including Joe Laramie in Missouri, Mike Sullivan in Illinois, Tom Kish in Michigan, and Chuck Arnold in San Diego. Shortly afterward, the OJJDP funding became available, part of a Recovery Act block that included training for the judiciary, prosecutors, and forensics.

Together with mental health professionals, Steele developed a proposal to develop training curricula based on ICAC needs. “Within 5 weeks we had delivered a program on paper that we felt could make major inroads in reaching investigators nationwide within a few short years,” she says.

IJF won the grant in August 2009, and immediately set to work with the mental health professionals, OJJDP, and commanders to develop:

  • A 3-hour training for those exposed to images.
  • A 4-hour training for mental health professionals helping them.
  • A unique train-the-trainer so that teams could be trained nationwide to teach others how to develop programs in their units.

The program includes several “good practices” guides which any agency can immediately deploy. “We also suggested a series of advanced topics which would be delivered in person at conferences and via webinar,” says Steele. “Two 8-minute videos were completed in February, and posted on a website in March that allows for tiered access to all the training materials and training.”

Program developers and trainers

“The core ICAC commanders [Laramie, Sullivan, Kish, and Arnold] were intimately interwoven through every step of the curriculum development process,” says Steele. They worked together with mental health professional Jane Stevenson, who had pioneered mental health programs for child pornography investigators in the United Kingdom for over eight years.

The next step: trainers. “Kathy Majerus joined us after completing the Train-the-Trainer at our first training in Huntsville in March,” says Steele. “She has been working with the Wyoming ICAC for years.

“Kris Carlson joined the core commander group in the curriculum development process in December, and has been a key player in developing a new guide, and advanced topic curriculum. He has had a mental health and wellness program at Vermont ICAC for a year and can answer practical questions about how to set one up, cost, evaluation, and choosing a mental health professional.”

Steele adds: “Our co-presenters work to make sure that the training is relevant, interesting, practical, and fun, and that exposed individuals who take the training walk out feeling that what they do feel on a daily basis is normal and that they can stay healthy in the field. It’s a great relief to many who attend.”

SHIFT Wellness training has been delivered since March 2009 to more than 400 people, and Majerus and Carlson will be presenting at the HTCIA conference on Tuesday, Sept. 21, during Sessions 2, 3, and 4.

Special offer with Forensic Computers

IJF in conjunction with Bronze Sponsor Forensic Computers is giving away a forensic tower. “Since the room only holds 70 people, that means that every qualified participant present has a one-in-70 chance of winning a tower worth $4,995,” says Steele. The recipient must be affiliated with a law enforcement agency to win.

Tower components include:

  • Intel Core i7-920 2.66GHz CPU
  • 6GB of memory
  • Tableau Forensic IDE/SATA/SCSI/USB Bridge
  • 20″ LCD panel
  • Western Digital 150 VelociRaptor
  • Three 500GB SATA II hard drives

SHIFT Wellness training promises to be one of the conference highlights. We’d love to hear your thoughts in comments.

Image: Bhernandez via Flickr


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