Putting Victim Identification first

Putting Victim Identification first
27 October, 2017 Anna Borgström

Putting Victim Identification first

In the survey which served as the basis for the NetClean 2016 Report, eighty per cent of the police officers questioned said that they or their department work with victim identification. This was also clearly illustrated by the fact that the respondents of the survey together saved more than 1,600 children in 2015. Fantastic work done by police forces across the world.

According to Jim Cole, Special Agent and Section Chief at Victim Identification, Homeland Security Investigations (USA), project VIC has been instrumental in shaping a paradigm shift towards methods of working that now puts the victim at the heart of the fight against child sexual abuse. In his view it is clear that current and increased efforts to help children who have been victims of sexual abuse – are the right paths to take. We asked him to elaborate more on the focus put on identifying the victims of child sexual abuse:

The right path to take

The survey indicates that more and more law enforcement agencies are taking a victim centric approach to child exploitation cases.  Victim identification can take many forms and all agencies should conduct victim identification to some extent when they approach cases with a victim centric methodology. In addition, there are specialised victim identification programs with specialised training, equipment and software to conduct full image, video, audio and data analytics, enhancements, clarifications, etcetera. Full specialised victim ID is highly resource intensive in time, technology, training, etcetera. These specialised programs are mainly found at larger agencies like federal, national and in some instances state/regional levels.

However, that doesn’t make the result of the positive trend any less significant. A victim centric approach is the focus that agencies should have in their day to day work, and is how we will achieve the biggest impact. In the past investigators did not think about victim ID, and if they did they did not know where to turn. That has now changed. In the last three or four years we’ve seen a real paradigm shift both in the USA and globally.

Project VIC has made a big impact in terms of global awareness and training of investigators across the globe. In the US, the specialised victim ID unit, where I work, and that was started up five years ago has also been an important factor. It gives agencies that don’t have the resources to do victim ID themselves somewhere to turn to. In those five years almost 60 people have been trained as victim ID specialists and our rescues of victims have increased more than 10 times. As those specialised agents start to talk to other agencies, both the victim centric approach and awareness that there is help available spreads.

Even if victim ID is still seen as a new and novel approach it is not a new idea. For nearly two decades, great work has been done in, for example, Sweden, Australia and Canada. However, it has mainly been driven by individuals with a passion and not necessarily as a globally accepted practice. If that passionate person has left, he or she has not always been replaced by the managerial level. Victim ID is now, in several countries, increasingly being engrained in every day routines, policies and systems, which makes it less dependent on individuals.

Global responsibility is key

One of the barriers to the success of victim ID is the idea that agencies only want to work on cases in their own jurisdiction. As anonymisation and encryption becomes more prevalent and investigators must become more creative, we have to let go of the geographical boundaries. When working on a case involving TOR we are not going to know where that individual is until the end of the case, but we still need to work on the case. If someone is working to save a child, it shouldn’t matter if that child is half a world away. Agencies must start to look at their role as a global responsibility, and to do that we need to get management buy-in.

I wholeheartedly believe that the victim-centric approach is the right path to take. With this shift we have seen a large increase in the number or victims being saved, here in the USA and globally. Even if there is much work to be done before we see victim ID as “the way we do business”, it is slowly becoming more of a mainstream law enforcement concept.

Jim Cole’s full title and place of work is:
Special Agent and Section Chief, Victim Identification, Homeland Security Investigations, Cyber Crimes Center, Child Exploitation Investigations Unit, USA.