Roo Powell takes on the role of a minor girl to interact with child abusers. The result is Undercover Underage, a remarkable series.
Roo Powell, who founded and leads the aid organisation Safe From Online Sex Abuse (SOSA), wants to prevent online child sexual abuse and expose its dangers. With the help of the SOSA team, she takes on the role of a minor girl to interact with child abusers in order to protect the most vulnerable. The result is Undercover Underage, a remarkable series. The first season of the series, titled İstismarcının Peşinde premieres on TLC on Saturday, November 4 at 21.50.
On the eve of the series’ release in Turkey, we share Roo Powell’s interview published in 221B.
What led you to found SOSA, and why did you decide to showcase the organization’s work on Undercover Underage?
I founded SOSA because online sex abuse is a relatively new thing. For example, Snapchat has only been around for a decade. When I was younger, I did not have social media, and it was not something my parents were worried about. Parents were worried about who was in proximity, and if you think about predators, they only had access to children who were nearby. But with the advent of the internet and social media apps, you can talk with anyone, anywhere, which means that there are a lot of opportunities for abuse online.
WE NEED RAISING AWARENESS
A child doesn’t have to be in the same room as a perpetrator to be abused. So I kept seeing this and realizing that there is a lack of awareness of what could happen online. I have three daughters with phones, two of my daughters are teenagers, and these are conversations that we have regularly. So I really felt that this is something that is not going unnoticed, but at the same time, there is not a lot being done about it because it is kind of new territory, and it requires a lot of educating, raising awareness, research. That’s the impetus behind starting SOSA.
What were the challenges of taking the work of SOSA to a television show?
Doing anything on television is difficult. Think about your work day to day, and then suddenly there are cameras in your face. That’s definitely challenging. It was something that I had to get used to. But I think that what is so great about Undercover Underage being able to highlight the work that SOSA does is we are able to raise awareness internationally about what can happen online.
NOT JUST INSTAGRAM OR ELSE
And I think parents realize it’s not only Snapchat, but it’s also not just Instagram, it’s really any platform, any website where communication can happen. I think that for any challenges that come along with making a television show, the cons are so outweighed by the pros, because the pros are that we are able to really empower a society and a community to help protect kids as a whole, very much as a village mentality. How do we all protect children together? Could our collective efforts really combat online sex abuse?
How is the work of the SOSA team articulated with the police involved in these investigations?
We work with law enforcement closely from the outside of any operation because it is important for us to abide by the guidelines that a county or the district attorney have set. Laws change in the US, they vary from state to state; sometimes what is legal in one state is not legal just across the border in another state. So these are all things that are on top of my mind.
We work with law enforcement and before we start one of our operations, we talk about what are the requirements for prosecution, what kind of evidence caught we are going to do, and what are the rules of engagement. So we are very much working in tandem. When we have this, I’m on the phone with whoever is leading that Internet Crime Against Children (ICAC) team multiple times a day, sharing evidence, sharing files, and discussing how to proceed with any perpetrator in particular. As SOSA, we recognize that we are not law enforcement, but we are able to be a force multiplier for them. So we’re grateful that we were able to add value to any of the operations.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from the first season that you were able to apply to the second season?
That’s a really good question. I think that the first season was about educating people on what can happen online, and I believe that a lot of the show’s value was that people don’t realize the sheer amount of predators that exist online.
IT HAPPENS VERY RAPIDLY
In season two, viewers will see how rapidly it happens. Many people assume that grooming takes place over months and that parents would know if something was wrong with their child or if a kid was acting strangely. However, grooming can actually happen in the course of minutes: while a parent is cooking dinner, running an errand or, a kid is on their phone in their room. And these predators are very tricky, can work very quickly and are great at manipulating children. I believe that viewers will be surprised by:
- The sheer amount of perpetrators.
- How quickly it happens.
- The number of arrests we were able to make.
Were there any cases that you found particularly difficult to track?
Yes, there are often people online who are looking to talk to children and send and receive images. But we do find more insidious perpetrators who are aware that what they are doing is illegal, they have been doing this for a while and are successful at it because they know how to avoid getting caught. And those are the people that are incredibly tricky, as everything they say is a lie: they claim to live in one town but actually live in another, or they say that they are a certain age when they are not, they send a photo of themselves that is not actually them.
THEY ARE VERY CAREFUL
These people are always making the child prove that they are who they say they are, proving their age. They are very careful. In the end, when we make the arrest, we find out that they have been doing this for years, and we discover their victims and what they have been up to online.
Some of the most shocking cases are the ones in which we learn that the person we have been talking to, who has been so careful, who has been targeting a 12-year-old, turns out to have a 12-year-old of his own, or he is a foster parent. These are the kind of things that are really shocking and upsetting. It is why it is important to continue these operations, because it is easy to get some lower level perpetrators, but it is much more difficult to get the more paranoid and sophisticated perpetrators.
Do you see any patterns in the behavior of adults who come into contact with minors?
Yes, we do. There is often a lot of similar language used. When we talk about grooming, we mean how perpetrators build trust and a relationship with a child in order to do something illegal with them. They might say things like: “Your parents don’t understand you, but I do”, “The internet is a dangerous place, but I’ll take care of you”. They create the idea that everyone else in the world is sketchy or doesn’t have the child’s best interests at heart, but they are the only ones who truly care.
CHILDREN WANT TO FEEL SPECIAL
This builds trust with the child. We see this as a common tactic the perpetrators take because young children are impressionable and want to feel special, to have someone they can talk to, and to feel like someone has their back. I know that if I were 14 years old, with access to social media, I would have fallen for all of these tactics. Not because I wasn’t a smart or good kid, but simply because I was a child on the internet and these perpetrators are master manipulators.
What message would you like the audience to take away after watching Undercover Underage S1 & S2?
I hope that season 1 and season 2 will raise awareness about online sex abuse. At SOSA, we take a strong anti-victim blaming stance. Often people say things like: “What was that kid doing online?”, “Why were they posting that picture?”, “How could they talk to that person?”. It’s important for us to drive home the point that abuse is never a child’s fault. Victim blaming protects the perpetrator and future perpetrators, as it keeps kids from reporting when something happens.
ABUSE IS NEVER A CHILD’S FAULT
So the biggest thing I hope adults take away from this show is that abuse is never a child’s fault, and we need to do everything we can to protect them. We have a lot of younger adults coming to us now (still very Gen Z), saying things like: “I didn’t realize that what happened to me was abusive until I watched the show”, “I watched Undercover Underage and for the first time I realized that it wasn’t my fault.”
That’s powerful, even just the perspective of helping someone heal. That’s why online sex abuse is so insidious, it has a lot of collateral damage, as it affects people in so many different ways. If SOSA and Undercover Underage can help people understand and have empathy, be more careful, and have conversations with kids about online safety, those are the greatest things I could ask for.
What advice would you give to parents?
I always say that it’s important to talk about online safety with your kids openly and honestly. I use this analogy a lot: You don’t have “the sex talk” with your kid one time, it’s an ongoing conversation. The same goes for online safety. There are a lot of ongoing conversations. When your kid messes up, stumbles across something or someone reaches out to them and does something abusive, the best thing you can do is not to react with anger or panic.
HAVE AN OPEN CONVERSATION
If a child knows that if they go to their parents and their parents react with things like: “Give me your phone,” “I can’t believe this happened,” “I’m so upset”, “How could you be so stupid?”, those reactions are just going to keep kids from sharing when abuse happens. They’ll sit in shame instead, and we don’t want that for our kids. So, just have an open conversation and train yourself to be a parent who doesn’t react when something goes wrong.
It’s something that I’ve had to learn. If my daughter says: “Hey, I accidentally dropped my laptop and it shattered on the bus,” my immediate reaction might be to be upset. But I have to remember that how I react to crises, even small ones, is something they’re seeing and it is sticking on their minds. So, if something awful comes down the line, I want them to believe that they can come to me and that I’ll be a source of strength and solutions for them.