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  • Writer's pictureJim Cole

In the Trenches of Digital Darkness: Navigating the Emotional Battleground of Child Exploitation Investigations



In the inaugural post of this series, "In the Trenches of Digital Darkness," I provided an overview of the chilling world of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM). Today, I will pull back the curtain further, sharing a deeply personal narrative that not only highlights the emotional challenges faced by those on the frontlines but also the unwavering spirit of a global community of Victim Identification Specialists.


The Scully Case: A Dark Chapter

Every case we encounter in this line of work leaves a lasting imprint, but some are so profoundly disturbing that they shake the very foundation of our resolve. The case of Peter Scully was one such instance. An Australian who had taken refuge in the Philippines, Scully's creation of "hurtcore" content was a descent into a level of depravity that was, until then, largely uncharted.

I pushed back from the screen, the weight of what I had just seen hit me like a hard blow to my stomach.   Alone in my dimly lit laboratory, I removed the headphones that were the source of terror.  You see, in our world the audio is usually so much worse and indelible than the visual.  Once removed, the silence around me seemed to amplify the gravity of it all. My eyes began to water, and though I tried to resist, the tears came slowly. I paused the video, taking a moment to process, to breathe. Even though I was isolated in the lab, I was deathly afraid someone would come into the lab and see me in this raw emotional state.

I had been forewarned about this particular case. The original post from the colleague who had posted it in our collaborative portal had taken the time to place a cautionary note in the comments. In our line of work, where every piece of material stands as a testament to some form of cruelty, a warning from one of my seasoned colleagues was not something to take lightly. It signified that what I was about to witness was exceptionally harrowing. Those of us in this field are hard to shock. We've borne witness to the depths of human depravity, having seen just about every horrific act one human can inflict upon another. Yet, this was on another level.  The warning wasn’t enough to prepare me.

After a few minutes, I composed myself, steeling my resolve. I put the headphones back on and pressed play again. As one of the few investigators around the globe dedicated to Victim Identification, my role often required more than just viewing. It required listening—as I said before, the listening is often the hardest part: But listening was part of the mission.  Our mission to identify and safeguard the child victims, to pinpoint and apprehend the offenders, and to locate the crime scenes. The weight of that responsibility always weighed on us.


A United Front: The Power of Global Collaboration

This case underscored the significance of international collaboration. The Victim Identification community, though small in number, is mighty in spirit and expertise. Day after day, we pooled our insights, leaned on one another for emotional support, and tirelessly pieced together fragments of evidence. Each of us playing a role, and the synergy of our collective efforts was palpable. Bound by our shared mission and humanity, we worked with a singular focus: to end the suffering of the victims.


The Jared Fogle Connection: A Stark Illustration of the Crime's Pervasiveness

Jared Fogle, widely recognized in the U.S. for his role as the Subway spokesperson, became an unexpected and disturbing figure in the broader context of child sexual exploitation. His arrest for child sexual exploitation offenses might have shocked the general public, but for those of us immersed in this field, it was yet another testament to the widespread nature of the issue. The subsequent examination of his digital devices revealed that among the vast troves of child sexual abuse material he had received, distributed, and possessed was the very material created by Scully. While we professionals are acutely aware of the extent of this crime, Fogle's connection to the Scully material served as a stark reminder to the general public of just how pervasive and indiscriminate child exploitation truly is.


Emotional Resilience: The Unsung Aspect of Our Work

The aftermath of investigations like the Scully case is not just a professional challenge but a profound emotional journey. Such cases, with their deeply disturbing content and far-reaching implications, bring to the forefront the immense emotional toll that online child exploitation can exact on those working to combat it. It's a stark reminder that while technical skills and investigative acumen are crucial, emotional resilience is equally indispensable.

In these emotionally charged and challenging times, the camaraderie with my colleagues served as a lifeline. We are more than just colleagues; we are a global community, a family.  We share our deepest fears, frustrations, and hopes. These shared experiences, the collective grappling with the darkness we confronted daily, forged bonds that transcend and will last forever. 

However, camaraderie, while invaluable, is just one piece of the puzzle. Recognizing the emotional and psychological challenges inherent in our work, it's imperative that there are structured mental well-being programs and support systems in place. Such initiatives not only provide a safety net for those moments when the weight becomes too much to bear but also equip us with tools and strategies to build resilience over time. Regular counseling, peer support groups, and mental health workshops are essential components of a holistic approach to ensuring the well-being of professionals in this field. After all, our ability to effectively combat child exploitation is intrinsically linked to our emotional and psychological health.  I was fortunate to have the ARMOR program at Homeland Security Investigations, a mental well-being program tailored to those of who work in this unique field of child sexual exploitation.  The program was invaluable to me.


Looking Ahead: A Glimpse into the Next Chapter

As many of my colleagues soldier on in this relentless battle against CSE and CSAM, our collective experiences only strengthen our resolve. They continue to delve into the abyss, driven by a profound commitment to shield the innocent and ensure that perpetrators face justice.

In the upcoming installment of this series, we'll journey back in time, exploring one of the most prolific CSAM series ever encountered. This series didn't just change me; it catalyzed a transformation within an entire federal agency, reshaping its approach to combating child exploitation.



About the Author 

Jim Cole is a seasoned veteran in the realm of law enforcement and a staunch advocate for children's rights, with nearly 35 years of dedicated service. His career began in the United States Army, transitioning through roles of increasing responsibility, from a patrol officer to the Chief of Detectives, and culminating in his position as a Supervisory Special Agent with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). Jim's relentless pursuit of justice led him to specialize in combatting child sexual exploitation, making significant strides in victim identification and digital forensics. His innovative, victim-centric methodologies have reshaped investigative protocols, emphasizing the human aspect in a field often overshadowed by the digital footprint of crime.

Jim founded and supervised HSI's Victim Identification Program and its state-of-the-art Laboratory, propelling forward the capabilities for identifying and rescuing victims of the most heinous crimes. Under his leadership, these entities have honed a victim-centric approach that prioritizes the rescue of children over solely bringing perpetrators to justice, blending humanity with the science of digital forensics.

Jim's expertise are globally recognized. He has served as the Chair of the INTERPOL Specialists Group on Crimes Against Children and has contributed to groundbreaking initiatives as a co-founder of Project VIC. His work transcends borders, as he collaborates with international law enforcement agencies, NGOs, and tech providers to fortify the global response to child exploitation.

Currently, Jim channels his extensive experience into his roles at Operation Light Shine and Onemi-Global Solutions, focusing on technological advancements, law enforcement collaboration, and victim support in the fight against child exploitation. His commitment to safeguarding children's futures is unwavering, as he continues to educate, innovate, and inspire in a battle that knows no borders.

Join me as we continue to shed light on the darkest corners of the digital realm, emphasizing the importance of global collaboration and the indomitable spirit of those dedicated to safeguarding our children's futures.

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