How Twitch viewers helped police narrow down location of possible child abuser in just hours
'I wouldn't have been able to live with myself had I simply let this go,' says Canadian
"Oh my God, this is the craziest thing I've ever seen."
That was a video game streamer's first thought on Dec. 16, when he spotted a video on social media — the disturbing video that would lead the Canadian to spend the next 24 hours tracking down evidence and providing it to police.
It resulted in a Calgary woman being charged for allegedly assaulting a child.
CBC News has agreed not to name the sleuthing streamer, so his employment won't be affected.
The video was originally posted to Twitch, a live-streaming platform for gamers.
It shows a woman playing the game Fortnite as she repeatedly slaps and then bites a screaming toddler, seemingly frustrated with the child for distracting her from the game.
The video then cuts to a few hours later, showing her roughly handling an infant before throwing the child onto the bed that she's sitting on while playing the game.
The streamer said he immediately sent the video to a contact at Twitch and then he searched on the user's social media for her location — it turned out to be Calgary — before calling the local police.
But he still felt like he hadn't done enough. So he decided to scour the site, downloading evidence just in case it vanished.
"I would say probably within 60 minutes of my bringing it to the attention of Twitch staff, they had suspended this person's account," he said.
He wasn't the only one dismayed by what he'd seen. CBC News was contacted by concerned gaming fans, as far away as the United Kingdom, who said they had reported the video to Crime Stoppers or police.
Police said that within two hours of first receiving tips about the video, officers were able to track the online gamer to a Calgary home, where officers found a woman, man and two children.
CBC News is not naming the woman or her account username to protect the identity of the children.
The woman has been charged with one count of assault, and the children were taken away. Possibly more charges relating to other videos are on the way, police said.
Staff Sgt. Peter Siegenthaler, with the Calgary Police Service's child abuse unit, said police rely on tips from the public in cases like this.
"It's hard, because sometimes [online] videos have been circulated for years, and it's hard to determine the origin and time these videos are produced."
As the sleuthing streamer dug through the videos to download evidence, he discovered a different user who had also posted hours of concerning videos with a child.
The videos showed the person loudly berating the child while using expletives, at one point coughing into the child's eye and threatening to withhold medication if the child didn't stop interrupting her game. CBC News has seen those videos.
As with the first user's video, some of the time-stamps were as recent as mid-December.
The streamer reported those videos to police as well. That user has since deleted all of the videos from her channel.
Police in the U.S. city where that user lives initially said they were not investigating but have since said they have reached out to the streamer who saw the videos for more information.
An ethical obligation
The streamer who reported the videos to police said that while the internet can be a nasty place and vigilantism doesn't always pan out, he's extremely proud of how quickly the Twitch community rallied to help the children in the videos.
"People, in general, are a lot more inherently good than we tend to give them credit for.… I wouldn't have been able to live with myself had I simply let this go," he said.
Nicole Letourneau, chair of parent-infant mental health at Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation, said everyone should take direction from how the online community quickly took action in response to the videos.
"I think members of the public are ethically obligated to protect children of parents who don't protect children.… It just needs to be reported," she said.
If you're someone who's finding that your kids are annoying you and you're playing a game, it might be a red flag that things aren't quite as they should be.- Nicole Letourneau, parent-infant mental health expert
She said this situation holds lessons for parents, too.
Letourneau studies how toxic stress can undermine the relationships between parents and children, and how different factors like mental illness or addiction can undermine a parent's ability to be attentive, responsive or nurturing to their child.
"A parent who is mentally well or doesn't have an addiction gets rewards from their children," Letourneau said.
But in a situation where a parent isn't well, she said, that reward system isn't functioning properly, and the child becomes an interference — blocking the parent from enjoying gambling, substances, video games or browsing social media on their cellphone.
"The early years for children are fleeting … everything seems to be tied in to positive early nurturing environments," Letourneau said. "If you're someone who's finding that your kids are annoying you and you're playing a game, it might be a red flag that things aren't quite as they should be."