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On the stand, police officers who investigated the death of 3½-year-old Maddox Williams appeared controlled and stoic while offering testimony at the murder trial of his mother. Some testified about the child’s appearance after he died — which was accompanied by photos — and did not falter in their testimony.
But law enforcement officers consider child abuse, neglect and death the most disturbing complaints and cases they deal with. Experts say that the stress and trauma of such cases simmers below the surface and needs to be addressed.
Maine State Police Captain Jeffrey Love and Dr. Mark Holbrook, a psychotherapist who treats law enforcement officers, both said police make a sacrifice while the stress and trauma builds up over time — particularly with child abuse investigations.
Twenty-five Maine children died in 2021 in cases associated with abuse, neglect or a history of family involvement with the child welfare system, according to state data. That’s the highest number of child deaths recorded in a single year since 2007 and double the rate from 2020.
Love oversaw the investigation into Maddox’s death until last month when he was promoted to captain. He has worked with the Maine State Police for 24 years, nearly all of that time in the Major Crimes Unit investigating cases that include child abuse and deaths.
Love said the ability to “shield or box out” emotions and handle cases — from the start of a case at the crime scene to its end, in the courtroom — is a requirement to serve in law enforcement.
That restraint helps officers “best serve the justice system” and help the jury make the best decision, Love said.
But the lengthy process of a trial — in which officers repeatedly review the investigation with prosecutors at the pre-trial, and the trial — can cause a “re-experiencing” of trauma, Holbrook said.
“It’s cumulative trauma,” Love said. “Oftentimes I equate it to, ‘these detectives have backpacks on and that trauma starts to add up, get 10 pounds, then 50 pounds, then 100 pounds.’”
Another challenge is that officers are legally required to keep confidential the details of the crime.
“When they go home, they can’t talk about it with their wives, or their loved ones, or anybody. They have to go home and process that information,” Love said. “[Confidentiality] is a factor that makes it very difficult.”
Studies show the brain structure of a police officer can change due to trauma. Police officers with frequent exposure to violence who don’t seek mental health treatment have higher rates of depression, PTSD, anxiety, substance use disorder and suicide attempts.
That struggle with investigating child abuse cases also deepens when an officer has a personal link to the victim.
“Any case involving children is the most traumatic experience that they have,” said Holbrook, a former police officer who now treats cops at the Maine Center for Resilience and Survivability. “Oftentimes, it’s exacerbated by having children of their own and children of similar ages because there becomes a personal identification with the victim.”
Compared with mental health professionals, law enforcement officers were “significantly more distressed” and took advantage of mental health treatment less frequently, according to a 2015 study from Walden University.
Those lower rates of mental-health treatment, Holbrook believes, stems from “law enforcement culture” that doesn’t prioritize asking for support.
“They fear being ostracized, alienated and ridiculed by their peers, or worse yet, by their administrators,” Holbrook said.
Love said the Maine State Police has established a program to encourage mental health care, treatment and positive coping mechanisms.
Support among law enforcement officers and their supervisors is essential, Love said. They can lean on one another in difficult situations and look out for signs that someone is struggling or in need of case reassignment.
“Having [officers] that have outlets, they’re the ones who have more resiliency and … are able to stay in this work longer,” Love said. “If they don’t have that, the job is going to chew them up.”