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Inside the police unit unmasking child predators | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey


“Some of the things we see, even after all this time, are shocking.”

“We quite often will say: ‘I actually can’t believe that someone else would do that to another human being.'”

“We can’t help the awful things that have happened to that child, but we can change their future.”

Warning: This story contains references to child sexual abuse that may distress some readers.

Puzzle pieces at AFP HQ()

It’s like putting together a puzzle. A horrible, sickening puzzle.

One where some of the key pieces are missing. And the finished product isn’t a picture you’d ever want to see.

“We can be looking at child abuse material six, seven, eight hours a day, day in and day out.”

It’s a remarkable statement about a standard day in the office, delivered in a remarkably matter-of-fact fashion by acting detective sergeant Kate Laidler.

A police officer looking stern
Detective Acting Sergeant Kate Laidler()

She leads the Australian Federal Police’s Victim Identification Team, based in the nation’s capital.

Sitting behind computer screens, they scour hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of photos and videos, trying to find any tiny clue that could help save a vulnerable child suffering at the hands of depraved predators.

A police officer looking stoney faced
Acting Detective Sergeant Kate Laidler.()

“When you were 20 at university, or you finished university – I have a degree in physical education, of all things – is this what I imagined I would be doing? Of course not.

A police officer looking stoic
Acting Detective Sergeant Kate Laidler.()

“[But] the value and the reward and the satisfaction you get from this work, I’ve never found anywhere else.”

Laidler’s been on the front line of tackling child exploitation online for years, and concedes it can be overwhelming to sift through the sheer volume of images and videos handled by her team.

“You could spend months looking through one particular seizure from an investigation that has got millions of images in there,” she said.

“It might be the only chance we have of identifying that child.

“We take the time, and we’re thorough, and we’re methodical in the way that we work through it, but we also know in the meantime, there’s probably another 25 seizures of the same volume that are waiting for review.”

The ‘bleed’ between work and home

Laidler is a mother. Other members of her majority-female team are too.

Disconnecting from the office takes on an entirely different meaning in this line of work.

“When you walk out the door, you have to leave it behind,” she said.

An AFP jacket sits over a chair with computers in the background
AFP jacket in computer room at AFP HQ()

“I sometimes wish I maybe lived in that naive world that some other people perhaps do, but we know the realities.

“If I took this work home with me day in and day out, I would become very unwell very quickly.”

Laidler revealed the work does affect how she deals with her children. Mum has made sure they’re acutely aware of how they should behave online.

“From a very young age, from preschool age, you’d sit them all down, and we would go through the rules,” she said.

“Okay, [you’d ask] what’s the first rule, and one would pipe up and say ‘don’t take your clothes off’, or whatever it might be.

“They know that those are the rules of being online, and they apply across all platforms — gaming, social media, doesn’t matter what that might be.

“When I grew up we actually didn’t have to wear seatbelts, but now my children wouldn’t get in the car and not put their seatbelt on.

“We’ve started very young so that it’s just normal and natural as part of life for them.”

Laidler’s colleague, Belinda Hoek, shared a more chilling example of how work and home life crosses over, noting there’s “always going to be a bit of bleedover”.

A woman sits in front of a computer
The AFP’s Belinda Hoek()

Hoek didn’t have children when she started in the team. Now she’s a proud mother of two, aged six and four.

“Unfortunately at times you will come across material, especially with young kids like mine, where there are items of clothing that I’ve come across in the material at work.

“And then my daughter has it, or my son might have that particular clothing.

“It goes in the bin.”

Despite the pressures, Laidler said the majority of her team had been doing the work for around eight or nine years.

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The dangers of the digital world have never been more apparent, and the AFP’s top brass will often describe online child sexual abuse as a borderless crime.

“We certainly see through the AFP-led Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation an increase in reporting every year of online child sexual exploitation,” Commander Helen Schneider said.

A caring looking police officer
AFP Commander Helen Schneider portrait()

“The amount of material that we’re seizing seems to be increasing, which is that volume of material becomes quite challenging and time-consuming.

“It is concerning that we do see an increase in reporting, but we know that more and more children around the globe are using the internet and devices from younger and younger ages — technology is more accessible to children and to online offenders.”

The AFP is constantly receiving referrals from international agencies, asking for help from their Australian colleagues or tipping them off to victims who appear to be in Australia.

And the environment is constantly changing.

A stoney faced uniformed police officer
AFP Commander Helen Schneider()

“We see technology evolving with end-to-end encryption and AI-generated child abuse material — we know that this is something that is likely to grow for us, not only in Australia but internationally as well,” Schneider said.

A uniformed police officer with her lips pursed
AFP Commander Helen Schneider()

“It’s a challenge for our victim identification experts, because of the photorealism of that type of technology.

A stern uniformed police officer
AFP Commander Helen Schneider()

“It can challenge us in terms of our victim identification specialists wasting time on something that might not be a real victim, and taking them away from efforts that go towards removing real child victims from harm.”

‘Celebrate the wins’

Laidler and Hoek are reluctant to divulge too much when it comes to how they go about their job — not just because of the sensitivities surrounding vulnerable victims, but also to ensure predators don’t learn about the techniques used to bring them to justice.

But they do, as Laidler describes it, “celebrate the wins”.

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One case in early 2017 was cracked after a referral from an international partner.

“They’d executed a search warrant at an offender’s house and had seized material … and had found some videos and images that had some key indicators that suggested that child was here in Australia,” Laidler said.

“We spent probably the next three years looking for that child, trying to identify things that we can see — where were they sold, who sold them, those sorts of things, without any success.

“And then in 2020, we had a breakthrough based on what we could see in the imagery and identified the child and the offender.”

The prosecution was successful.

Hoek was involved in a similar case, where an international agency seized 50 terabytes of data — the equivalent of around 900,000 files — and passed them on to the AFP.

A woman looking proud
The AFP’s Belinda Hoek()

“Using our specialised software, but also just a large amount of hours and scrolling through all of those images and videos and trying to get details and see if we could find any victims in there, I was able to come across a victim that was about 10 years old,” Hoek said.

A woman looking emotional
The AFP’s Belinda Hoek()

“There was never any disclosure from that victim at all … if we hadn’t found that material, I believe the abuse would still be ongoing and there wouldn’t have been any intervention at all, she may still be in harm.”

The decompression room

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It’s March when the ABC is invited into the AFP’s headquarters, in the shadow of Parliament House in the Canberra suburb of Barton.

There’s a hush across the floor — perhaps because media are there, perhaps because some staff are downstairs at a fundraising barbeque.

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The Victim Identification Unit’s office is separated from other AFP teams. It lies behind frosted glass and swipe card locks, with signage warning of the sensitive material being pored over on the other side of the door.

It’s a fairly austere room. It could be any office, in any building across the country.

There’s a subtle hint of the stresses experienced by its residents, with the placement of a small desktop punching bag standing next to some staplers and other stationery.

Next door is another room, reserved solely for use by the team. Its purpose is very different.

Two table tennis bats and a ping pong ball.
Table tennis bats on a table at AFP HQ()
Close up of orange ping pong balls
Close up of a container of ping pong balls at AFP HQ()
Close up of darts with Australian flag on them
Darts and dartboard at AFP HQ()

A dartboard hangs next to the window, a masking tape mark stretched across the carpet in front of it. A jar of bright orange table tennis balls sits on a bookcase, next to a table that has seen hours of fierce competition.

Well-worn couches are placed in front of TV screens airing daytime repeats of reality shows, with Xbox and PlayStation consoles hooked up for later use.

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Decompression is the name of the game in here.

“Sometimes you just need a break to turn your mind off,” Laidler said.

“You need to have some strategies in place and proactively in place — not just when you hit that crisis period — something that you can count on when you’re feeling like that.”

Laidler said the close-knit team were good at noticing warning signs in each other’s behaviour, checking in on each other to ensure they could keep doing the job.

“We all do have different methods of how we get through the job, how we actually prioritise our mental health, but it is one of the main things you need to do,” Hoek said.

“My husband knows that if I come home and say I’ve had a bit of a rough day, I need to go for a run, I need to clear my head, he’s always really supportive of that as well.”

It’s a common theme that continues to pop up as Laidler and Hoek share their experiences.

The need for resilience, in one of the most professionally and personally challenging jobs in law enforcement.

“If we don’t help ourselves, we can’t help other people, and we can’t help the victims.”

Credits

Reporter: Matthew Doran

Photography: Nick Haggarty, Matt Roberts and David Sciasci

Illustrations: Emma Machan

Production & editing: Jake Evans and Elise Scott



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