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A day in the life of a PIER Postgraduate Researcher

Published: 8 February 2024 at 12:03

Mille Fjelldal

“They are police officers, yet they feel like they’re tearing people’s lives apart – our research can make a difference.”

Mille Fjelldal is a Postgraduate Researcher completing a full-time PhD with PIER, funded by a scholarship from the Dawes Trust and ARU.

Mille is carrying out ‘first of its kind’ research into the impact of ‘the Knock’ (a term used by families to describe the execution of a search warrant at their home, usually in the early morning) and the criminal justice journey for non-offending family members of individuals suspected of online child abuse.

Whilst this builds on work already pioneered through PIER researchers and colleagues, Mille is embedded in a police Paedophile Online Investigation Team (POLIT), analysing the impact of the country’s first Indirect Victim Support Officer (IVSO) – a role designed to better support the families of suspects arrested for online child abuse offences.

Here, Mille describes her day-to-day work and why she feels it’s so important.

I’m really lucky to be analysing something that has not been possible before the work of the PIER team, and which has the clear potential to make an incredible difference.

My work is funded by the Dawes Trust and is enabling us to carry out a formal analysis of a pioneering new role that has been created at the Lincolnshire POLIT. The role was created to provide ‘first of its kind’, dedicated support to the partners and families (usually women and children) of people arrested for online child abuse offences.

Until now, POLIT investigators have struggled to provide the level of support these families need, so many have been left to get through this devastating experience themselves, and police forces have not had the dedicated provision in place to help them.

If our analysis proves that this new post has been beneficial, it could lead to the long-term addition of these roles, all over the country – that’s quite incredible.

So, what do I do each day?

Watching and learning from the POLIT and IVSO

I have incredible access to an operational police team that is carrying out some of the hardest work delivered by police officers. For two days a week, I am with the Lincolnshire POLIT, observing and learning from the team of detectives, victim identification officers, intelligence officers, sergeants, analysts, and PC Tom Scott – the UK’s first IVSO.

As you can imagine, no two days are the same in the office. Sometimes, it’s fairly calm, with each team member busily typing away or dealing with calls.

On others, intelligence may have led to a warrant being approved, so the team swiftly actions yet another arrest – these happen at least two or three times a week, delivering ‘the Knock’ at the door of an unsuspecting family.

I’m often in awe of what these people are doing. They subject themselves to the most heinous of crimes every day, seeing the most horrific of images that they can’t ‘unsee’, all with the sole aim of stopping offenders from accessing, sharing and creating child abuse imagery with a child victim at the centre.

I’m two months into this part of my study, so am observing the workings of the team, and crucially the impact of Tom’s role within it. I spend time speaking with the officers and staff and learning from each of them on the work they’re doing, why it is needed and the knock-on effects on everyone involved.

It’s these knock-on effects of an arrest for online child sexual abuse offences that were the catalyst for the creation of Tom’s post. Detectives at Lincoln POLIT working on these crimes saw the critical need for dedicated support for the families of suspects and put together a clear case for the creation of a new role.

Having secured funding from senior officers for what was effectively a trial post, Tom is now nearly a year into the role. When I’m with him at work, I observe him receiving notifications of a search warrant that is to be executed, and the details of any family members that will be in the home at the time of the visit.

He will be given their details and will proactively reach out to them to offer them help and support as their world effectively comes crashing down.

Seeing this in action is quite something. Only recently I observed Tom taking a call, learning that the wife and daughter of an offender were in such awful distress over what had happened.

Rather than his more usual procedure of getting in touch with the family after the arrest has happened, he went immediately to them, dropping everything to see them face-to-face and to start offering support.

Listening to families

From next month, I’ll start interviewing the family members that Tom works with, hearing their direct accounts on what they’ve been through and how they view Tom’s input in their lives.

I think this is incredibly brave. So many women desperately want to prevent others experiencing what they have, even when facing such trauma. Many of them cannot comprehend how other people in their situation receive no support at all.

It’s clear from what I’m seeing that what happens to these people is nothing short of devastating. And the people arrested for these offences are committed by what people would see as ‘normal’. The suspects, they look like anyone you’d see on the street, working normal jobs with normal families. These ‘normal’ families’ lives are shattered.

And we have no idea what the long-term effects on the children of suspects are, because to date, they have not been formally considered and therefore no one has explored this. In my mind, there will be wide-ranging negative effects for these children in later life, but that is what Tom is trying to mitigate.

Despite the horrific nature of these crimes, one of the most shocking things I have heard is from the police officers who told me that the worst part of it all is ‘the Knock’. Arriving at someone’s home and delivering the message that the person they love and spend their lives with is suspected of something so terrible.

It blew my mind that officers found this the hardest part of what they were doing, but they honestly feel like they’re tearing people’s lives apart – ruining their lives.

Now, because Lincoln POLIT has invested in doing something differently, these officers can know that although they must deliver ‘the Knock’, there will be safeguards in place for the innocent family members affected.

Making the case for a vital role

When I’m not with the POLIT, I’m recording my findings, beginning my analysis and reading other relevant literature, and generally trying to stay up to date with any new developments within the field.

My hope is that however long it takes, Tom’s role will become standard in every force. Lincolnshire POLIT is the lowest-funded force in England and Wales and yet it has chosen to invest in this new role. So far, everything I have found has shown that the positive impact is clear.

I also hope that it will be widely recognised that the family members of these suspects are innocent in these crimes, and that they are hugely impacted. I want to help achieve this by having the best possible evidence base to prove it. The thousands of partners, spouses and children facing ‘the Knock’ through no fault of their own deserve it.

Mille Fjelldal, Postgraduate Researcher, PIER

Find out more about our MPhil/PhD in Criminology and PIER's current postgraduate research students.