Detective Dave Beck nearly stepped on 10-day-old twins strapped into car seats and hidden among clothing, human feces and filth littering the floor of a middle-class Post Falls home as he checked out a report of child neglect.
A second set of twins – 3-year-old girls – was found locked in a sweltering bedroom where urine and feces were smeared on the floor and walls. A toddler was discovered in a nearby crib, crying and suffering from severe diaper rash.
“The things I’ve seen over the years, it takes a percentage of your soul away,” said Beck, with the Post Falls Police Department.
Scenes of severe abuse and neglect of children also take a toll on the physical, mental and emotional health of police officers, medics and others on the front lines of these cases. First responders can experience severe stress-related problems, experts say, losing sleep, developing eating disorders, growing depressed and suffering high blood pressure. They withdraw from loved ones, throw themselves into their work and question their core beliefs.
“The thing that makes the biggest difference is the relevance the investigator has to the events they are investigating; you’re investigating an 8-month-old and you have an 8-month-old at home,” said Capt. Michael Cobb, a Richland Police Department veteran and expert in traumatic stress.
Cobb has taught crisis intervention courses for police agencies throughout North America since 1996. The stress from child abuse investigations is among the worst and often surfaces as sleep disturbances, he said. Another common reaction is overcompensation: “People immerse themselves in their work, or overcompensate in other areas of their life,” he said.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety condition that can occur after experiencing or witnessing traumatic events, afflicts up to 15 percent of people in law enforcement and 30 percent of fire and paramedic workers, according to the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, which works with emergency services professions to prevent and mitigate disabling stress.
“When the responses you have as a human being don’t go away and become intrusive in your life, that affects your ability to do your job,” Cobb said.
Watching and talking
Those who witness the aftermath of accidents and violence involving children often feel a sense of helplessness and self-doubt, Coeur d’Alene Deputy Fire Chief Dan Cochran said. They tell themselves, “I could have done more, I didn’t do enough,” he said.
Guilt, as well as fear and anger, are typical emotional responses, experts say. Some may shut out family and friends or no longer take part in activities they enjoy. Others may have nightmares or difficulty paying attention. Severe cases can produce physical reactions, including chills, fatigue and headaches.
First responders and their families are taught to watch for warning signs, said Cochran, a member of a regional Critical Incident Stress Debriefing team.
Talking, he said, is an important coping tool. “We try to get them to unload.”
Sometimes a casual discussion at the scene is enough. Other times a debriefing team is called in. North Idaho and Eastern Washington police and fire agencies offer such counseling after traumatic events.
“We usually set up the group in a circle so they can all see each other,” said Spokane fire Battalion Chief Mike Inman. “We tell them the conversation is all confidential, and if they don’t want to talk they don’t have to. We want them to feel like they are in a safe environment.”
Even those who say they aren’t hurting are asked to come to the debriefing to support co-workers, Inman said, adding, “Sometimes those people end up talking.”
Cobb said talking is the most important thing a first responder can do. “Talk about the experience with people who share your lives,” he said.
That peer-driven model for coping with stress is essential in this line of work, Cobb said. “How do you talk about something that everyone else on the planet finds so revolting? We’re available and in the workplace.”
John Thompson, a chaplain for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, says he usually is called to child deaths, whether criminal or natural.
“All the emotions are swirling around like water in a washing machine, and when they talk about it that’s how they get rid of the excess water,” Thompson said. “Deputies are really affected by child deaths because most of them have children. But they deal with it and go home and hug their own kids,” he said.
“You look for reasons,” he said, “and sometimes there aren’t any. For me personally, the hardest part is the sense of hopelessness. You’ve got to be on your knees sometimes, because some of this is incomprehensible.”
Moved to act
Nearly 1,200 child abuse cases – sexual and physical abuse as well as neglect – were referred to the Spokane Police Department in 2006. Most were investigated. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office investigated 238 child abuse cases last year.
In North Idaho, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department investigated 68 crimes involving physical or sexual abuse against children last year. Coeur d’Alene police investigated 121 such crimes in that period.
The sheer number of abused children can overwhelm officers and detectives closest to these crimes. They soldier on by drawing on different inspirations.
“The thing that keeps me in this particular caseload is you know that kids are counting on you,” said Coeur d’Alene police Detective Tracy Martin. “They may not know you, or you may not ever see that child, but they’re counting on you.”
Martin said he’s also driven by the idea that helping a child could break a cycle of abuse in a family. “If you can keep them from being abused one more time or keep them from doing it to somebody else later on – that’s kind of overly simple, but that’s what keeps me coming back.”
Others say they’re motivated by knowing they can put away bad people. “Seeing death is our job,” Spokane police Sgt. Joe Peterson said. “Bringing those who cause death to justice – that’s what keeps us sane.”
He pointed to a quote – “We work for God” – posted on a detective’s desk. “This helps, too,” he said.
Spokane police Sgt. Brad Arleth’s unit, which consists of five detectives who focus on sex crimes, investigates hundreds of cases each year.
“You have to resolve within yourself that you are participating in this process,” Arleth said. “You are trying to do something for these kids that they can’t do for themselves.”
Other means of coping include black humor and banter with co-workers, as well as sports and quality time with family.
Aerobic exercise and moderating one’s consumption of alcohol and caffeine also help, Cobb said.
“We use grim humor a lot,” he said. “It’s not appropriate for anyone outside of the service, but it can keep your heart from breaking.”
Beck, the Post Falls detective, said his father told him he had to learn to separate himself from his job when he went home at night. His hobbies are poker, skiing and fishing.
“You just find things outside of work to absorb your attention and time,” he said.
Martin, the Coeur d’Alene police detective, said he has a hard time shutting out disturbing images he must confront in his work. “Those are things you don’t forget and they’re not things you want to remember,” he said.
Family “is a big thing,” Martin said. He said he gets through the week with the support of his wife and by working out his frustrations digging holes and planting trees.
Kootenai County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Marty Raap, a father of two, tries to keep work and home separate. He’s not a fan of crime novels.
“I do it in real life, I don’t need to go home and do it more,” he said.
Raap said his family provides “a lot of happy distractions.”