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March 2011
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Rescuing children worth the strain

Behind restricted access at Police National Headquarters, four Police staff spend their days sifting through the murky world of paedophilia.

Just as people trade movies and music on the Internet, there’s a thriving market in child pornography.

Researchers aren’t sure what proportion of people seeking such images and videos are also ‘contact offenders’ who physically offend against children but there is a definite link.

Online Child Exploitation Across New Zealand (OCEANZ) was created in 2009 to identify and rescue children being abused and exploited in New Zealand and overseas.

“A lot of the guys we identify haven’t come to the attention of police before so they probably wouldn’t be found if we weren’t specifically looking for them,” says Detective Senior Sergeant John Michael, who heads up the unit.

John and the two detectives in his team spend a lot of time on websites and chat rooms using covert profiles to pose as teenagers and paedophiles.

As one of his profiles, John struck up an online conversation with a man asking where he could hire a child for sex. The man admitted abusing his 15-year-old brother. John was able to trace him back to a location in England and refer the case to local police.

John, himself a father of four, says playing a paedophile can be difficult. “It can leave you feeling a bit tarnished because of the nature of some conversations.”

OCEANZ team members Detective Senior Sergeant John Michael and analyst Jo Henderson help rescue New Zealand children from paedophiles.
Photo: Kathryn Fitzpatrick, Ten-One

Everyone in the unit also sifts through thousands of images and videos targets have downloaded off the Internet, first to decide if they can be defined as ‘objectionable’, and then to see what children are potentially at risk. They must also prepare written descriptions of any images to be used in court.

“We try to limit viewing to four hours a day – two hours a day is usual. Movies with sound are the worst. We try not to view them by ourselves,” says John.

Sometimes the stress of work spills into home life. The unit’s members talk often about the impact of their work among themselves, and they each have 12 weekly sessions with a psychologist.

Even so, John says it’s the best job he’s ever done. “It’s rewarding because it’s so proactive. We’ve had some really good catches with children being identified and rescued.”

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