Vets' New Gig: Catching Child Predators?

by | April 24, 2015 AT 10:40 AM

By Taylor Knopf

North Carolina is the first state to consider spending money to hire graduates from a new national internship program that trains military veterans as computer forensic analysts to catch people who sexually abuse children.

Gov. Pat McCrory included $2 million in his proposed 2015-17 budget to hire wounded vets who complete training through the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative (HERO) Corps, a joint effort of the National Association to Protect Children, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Special Operations Command.

Former Army Special Forces Sgt. Glenn Devitt is the only vet enrolled in a 10-month federal law enforcement internship program in North Carolina. He has been in Raleigh this month urging legislators to keep the money to fund the mission in the state budget.

After 10 years in Army intelligence, Devitt medically retired last spring due to what he calls general "wear and tear."

Searching for what to do next, he contacted a number of nonprofits that dealt with human trafficking to see where he could help, and the HERO Corps seemed like a natural fit, he said.

After spending three weeks at a child advocacy center learning about child predators and sexually abused children, Devitt took an eight-week course in basic computer forensic training through U.S. Homeland Security Investigation.

Now he is working alongside agents in Charlotte, going through a backlog of evidence confiscated from people who are either watching, sharing or producing child pornography, or doing all three.

Devitt, a father of two young children, said it's a tough job and he compartmentalizes to get through it.

"It's still the most horrific thing you could watch or see, but you have to let that motivate you. Someone has to do it," he said.

"It's just kind of helping the helpless. I wasn't planning on having to watch child pornography. I just wanted to help kids as much as I could."

Devitt's priority is getting through the backlog of evidence so federal investigators in Charlotte can start new cases. If the state provides money to hire more HEROs, he said it would quadruple their efforts in getting predators off the streets.

Camille Cooper, director of government affairs for the National Association to Protect Children, has joined Devitt in talking with lawmakers about the scope of the problem and the impact hiring HEROs could have.

There are 14,000 computers in North Carolina identified on just one sharing network trading images of children being raped, Cooper said. On average, half the people downloading these images are also hands-on offenders, she said.

"The stuff that they watch normalizes the conduct for them," Cooper said. "It fuels their drive to seek out actual sexual assault."

She said the problem is like a spider web, it gets bigger and bigger as each hard drive is opened up.

The HERO Corps program, which plans to graduate 48 vets each year nationwide, recruits special forces and military vets because they are especially resilient, Cooper said. The program takes vets looking for a mission and who have recommendations from their unit or previous commander, along with the right temperament and the desire to give back to their community.

McCrory's proposed $1 million a year for the next two years could pay for 10 to 15 HEROs in North Carolina, Cooper said. If the legislature keeps it in the budget, she will return next year to help create a recurring fund.

One of the public safety appropriations committee chairmen, Republican Rep. Pat Hurley of Randolph County, said she couldn't say whether the committee will keep the money in the budget.

"I know it certainly is needed," Hurley said. "It's something to be looked at and very important to protect our children."

(c)2015 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)