Detective Sherry Torres on the rewards and challenges of CSA work
Sherry Torres is one of Griffeye’s trainers in the US and a Law Enforcement Officer with over 17 years of experience. She’s spent eight years of that time working as a Digital Forensic Examiner dedicated solely to child exploitation cases for the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force. We sat down with her to gain a better understanding about her job, what drives her to continue despite big challenges, and how technology serves her in her day-to-day work.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what drove you to start fighting crimes against children?
I’ve had great opportunities at my agency to work in a lot of different roles. I started off as a street patrol officer and did that for several years before moving on to the narcotics unit as a detective for five years. Those roles were really exciting in my twenties and early thirties but, one day, I got to the point where I started seeking something more personally rewarding… Something where I could see more clearly that I was making a positive impact in my community.
Luckily for me, there was an opening at the ICAC unit around the same time. They were searching for someone who had an interest in doing this type of work—because it’s really not for everyone. At that time, I didn’t even know that we had an ICAC unit, but I jumped at the chance to make a bigger impact and also learn about the use of technology in fighting this crime.
What was it like transitioning into your role at the ICAC unit?
When I started this job, I wasn’t aware of how big the problem of child sexual abuse and exploitation was. And not only in the US, but throughout the entire world. I think that is a problem in itself, that not even the police community outside of the child exploitation units understands how big this issue is.
When I run into classmates from the police academy, we catch up and they ask where I am assigned. When I say that I work in the Internet Crimes Against Children Unit, most of them have never heard of it. So, it hasn’t really received the attention that it deserves within the police community. It is not one of those glamorous roles in the agency that everyone wants to pursue. In fact, positions in our unit are hard to fill when someone leaves. I would say that, for many, what we do every day is unthinkable.
What are the most fulfilling and challenging parts of your work?
I consider crimes against children, the elderly, and animals to be the most heinous of crimes. I’ve been involved in identifying and rescuing many children in my own community and was there when they were removed from their terrible situations. Knowing that it was because of the work that my colleagues and I do means so much to me. I can’t imagine doing anything else at my agency—despite the big challenges.
In my eight years working with ICAC, I have seen a lot of people leave due to the stress it causes. I know this is not only a problem within my unit, but it’s a global problem. No one really knows how they are going to react to this job until they do it. Many come into the unit with the motivated outlook that they will make a difference and hope to rescue children. Then they start doing it every day and realize it’s more stressful and challenging than they could have ever imagined. Three years is about the average time for investigating this type of crime and, sadly, that is about the same amount of time it takes to receive the necessary training and form a good workflow for this job. There’s a high turnover, and it can be disheartening for those who continue to stay. The shortest amount of time someone has worked in our unit before they couldn’t do it anymore was two months.
For me, reviewing the images and videos is the hardest part of the job. I will never forget the first child sexual abuse (CSA) image that I encountered and the unwanted recall that I experienced when I started in this field. When it gets really difficult, I remind myself why I do this job so that I can keep going. I think all police officers working with this crime can remember at least one specific case or a moment that tests their resolve to continue investigating these crimes. I remember one case that caused me to walk away from my desk. I felt like I’d reached a fork in the road, and I questioned my ability to continue doing this work. In the end, it made it even clearer for me. I keep the kind, heartfelt letters that children and caregivers have written to me and my unit. These letters are a great reminder for me to keep going. The struggles with the material, the backlog, and the high turnover will never go away, but I have a great support system and positive outlets to manage the stress.
Is there anything the agency or anyone else could have done to keep your former colleagues in the fight?
There will always be more that we can do to protect the wellbeing among the staff. I think it’s important that we recognize the challenge for what it really is, which is secondary trauma. I also believe we have to talk more about this within the police community at large, to make everyone aware of how this work affects you so that we can better help recognize the early signs of burnout among staff. How supervisors handle their unit matters greatly. Speaking for my own agency, my current supervisors are amazing and truly understand the kind of work that we are doing and the challenges that we face.
As a unit, we have done so much to help each other, and ourselves, stay in the fight. For example, we do a lot of team-building exercises to build trust with each other and to take our minds off work for a bit. No one besides your closest colleagues who are doing the same type of work can truly understand what this job does to you, so it’s important to have open communication and trust within the unit. In the most challenging of times, my biggest support has always been my peers at work.
How does technology support you and your colleagues on the job?
When I first started, I wasn’t using any tools that were designed for efficiently processing, displaying, and reviewing large amounts of digital media—which comprises the majority of the heavy lifting for CSA cases. My software was limited to double-clicking on a thumbnail to open it up in a viewer. For videos, I would scrub through the content to determine if it was relevant to my case. It was extremely time consuming. Not efficient at all.
The fast-evolving technology over the years, since my start in the field, has helped reduce my workload and exposure to the material, and helped me identify and rescue victims faster. There are so many advancements that have made the roles of both the investigator and the forensic examiner much more efficient in terms of workflow. The idea of having the computer do the bulk of the analytical work for our field is a great direction to continue in. The computer is not going to react to reviewing child sexual abuse material (CSAM) like a human does.
Even though artificial intelligence (AI) is only at the beginning stages of what it will do in the future, I’ve already had an excellent experience of using it. It is helping me quickly focus on the never-before-seen material that is likely to contain CSA content and quickly eliminate those which are not. This saves me a lot of time when taking on cases.
Another feature I like to use is visual similarity search, which helps me find visually similar pictures and videos. I specifically remember one case in which this technology was a big help. My colleagues and I executed a Search Warrant at an offenders’ house where we, as always, documented the state of the residence with photos while at the scene, which could later help us in our investigations. One of the pictures taken was of the offender’s bathroom, where there was a bathtub that had very distinctive tile work around it on the walls. Later, we took that image and searched for any pictures or videos that contained that kind of tile. It immediately hit on pictures that were taken in that very same bathtub involving multiple children during several, separate incidents over multiple years. Our offender was offering babysitting services in the neighborhood and to his friends and family, and he was sexually abusing those children. These were victims that we were not aware of prior to receiving the CyberTip that initiated the investigation.
We probably would have found the first-generation material in the end without the technology, but it would have taken so much longer than having a tool streamline the process and help us focus our efforts on more relevant data. Those children were removed from a terrible situation much faster with the use of technology. Having tools like this as part of the case workflow makes a huge difference.
Why did you decide to also become an Analyze DI trainer?
Helping my peers stay in the fight longer by sharing how I have applied technology effectively in my cases means a lot to me. I have always felt a kinship towards others who are willing to do this work. Over the years, I have learned what works best for me, what keeps me staying afloat despite the workload pressures and the unavoidable nature of reviewing CSAM, and what has helped me identify children and rescue children as efficiently as possible. I am thankful for being able to share my experience and knowledge with my brothers and sisters in law enforcement to help them in their job. If I can help others work smarter, better protect their wellbeing in this job and, ultimately, safeguard more children, that would only add to the reward of pursuing this career path.
Thank you, Sherry! And keep up the great work.