Roo Powell Talks Going Undercover Underage

Premiering on Investigation Discovery tomorrow, February 24, and already streaming on discovery+, the six-part true-crime series Undercover Underage sees child advocate Roo Powell transforming herself into teen personas to try to identify and help law enforcement catch predators online. The series emerged from Powell’s work with SOSA (Safe from Online Sex Abuse), a nonprofit she founded to combat the exploitation of children on the internet. TV Real caught up with Powell to learn more about her mission with SOSA, the experience of having cameras record her transformation from a thirtyish mom of three to a believable teen girl and what she hopes to achieve with the new series.

TV REAL: How did your work in combating the abuse of children online start?
POWELL: I’ve written a lot about advocacy. I have been to Southeast Asia to write about sex trafficking. I was in the Middle East writing about the refugee crisis. I’ve written about poverty. I was in the tech space, running creative for an online safety company. My team had writers and designers. I was trying to figure out a way to demonstrate the ubiquity of online predation, so we decided as a team to put a decoy online. You can’t use a stock photo or a picture of a real teenager. I have all these talented graphic designers, so we said, let’s just take a photo of me and age me down. We put the picture online and within the first hour, five adults had reached out to our 15-year-old decoy. We ran this for a couple of weeks, and law enforcement was involved. I wrote a piece about it that gained a lot of traction—it went viral. I ended up on Good Morning America; I did the whole press tour about predation. The company I was with had their hands in many online issues—suicidal ideation, bullying—but I felt this part was untapped and I wanted to focus on it. I ended up leaving and I still had these outstanding cases, so I worked on those with law enforcement. Then I joined the board of a child-serving nonprofit to get my feet wet on what a nonprofit is like. And then I launched SOSA.

At the same time, a production company reached out and said, We like what you do; we want to follow you around with a camera. That felt weird, but they pushed it this way: Your writing has reached so many people, you’ve been able to educate so many people about online predation; imagine reaching millions of people every week. That sold it for me. You’ll see in the show that we catch bad guys one by one, but more important than that—because that’s a drop in the bucket—the goal is to empower an entire society to combat online sexual abuse and predation together. There’s a lot of victim-blaming that happens in the U.S. I maintain that victim-blaming is one thing that keeps perpetrators empowered and safe. We at SOSA can combat it from many different areas—empowering society, empathy-led education, education for teachers and caregivers, inspiring new legislation like grooming statutes. The age of consent in some areas is dismally low.

One thing that is important to me is that we’re still able to work with tech. We have access to all of these conversations with predators, so we have patterns of grooming, of child abuse, at our fingertips. We take those conversations, identify patterns and use them to educate people in the tech space who are trying to make their platforms—social, dating, gaming—safer for their users. If they’re saying their platform is good for kids 13 and up, they need to make it safe for kids 13 and up. We have partnered with Spectrum [Labs], which serves social media companies to identify signs of toxic behavior. We take all of our conversations, remove all the personally identifiable information and feed it to their artificial intelligence. Their AI, which detects child abuse, can become better at detecting child abuse. So apart from us being a low-rent Liam Neeson, we do other things that are really important, too!

TV REAL: Doing what you do seems hard enough, let alone having cameras document it. Did it get easier over the course of production?
POWELL: I’m the one interacting. These poor cameramen have these cameras steady on the objectionable material we’re receiving. The conversations you see [in the show] are little snippets. Sometimes the conversations are two hours long. Being in character and pretending to be interested in this horrible person on the other side is brutal. [The cameras] are with me the whole time. For me, it’s really important to work around people who understand the mission, so there’s an element of all of us feeling safe around each other. I feel safe enough to say, I need a break. It’s still always awkward, especially because I’m almost 40. I’m not supposed to look like a teenage girl. I have to leave the room when they digitally edit me because it starts to hurt my feelings. We have to talk about it objectively. Let’s get rid of the stretch marks. Let’s move the face that sags up by half an inch. You show signs of aging in your hands, your neck. I have to protect my brain and remind myself I’m not supposed to be this ultra-Photoshopped version. I’m not supposed to look the same age as my children. Once I remind myself, I’m OK.

TV REAL: How do you deal with that darkness all day, especially being a mom?POWELL: In the beginning, I hadn’t quite thought about it, and then certain things I found to be super problematic. For example, I have to toss on a sweatshirt to talk to [a predator]. In the beginning, I wasn’t thinking about boundaries, and I’d see my kid had gone into the backseat of my car and found a sweatshirt and was wearing it, and it was the one I used to talk to a perpetrator. She didn’t understand why I was like, Take it off! Anything that I touch as a decoy, I call cursed. If there’s a moment and we’re running late, and I have to use the clothes I’m wearing, those clothes become cursed, and I never wear them again as Roo. That is important to me because I need to have separation. When we are set-dressing a teenage girl’s room, I’ll say, You can’t put that poster up because my kid has one, or not that team because my kid loves them. I don’t do any perpetrator work from home. At the same time, if you go to the SOSA office, I don’t have a single picture of my kids in there. I don’t have anything that says, I’m a mom. The workspace needs to be kept separated. Otherwise, it starts to affect your mental health.

TV REAL: How much time goes into creating the profiles for your decoys?

POWELL: It is an extensive process. I think people are surprised by how long it is. You can always slap a picture of a girl online, but we want to be effective and make sure we’re also getting the more sophisticated perpetrators. There are ops where it will be one picture of one girl and maybe it’s not as fleshed out. The people who are manipulative, who have been around the block, won’t necessarily fall for that. They’ll recognize it as an op. A real teenage girl has layers. She has classmates, friends, teammates and a babysitter from three years ago who follows her on Instagram. Nothing is more suspicious than an Instagram account with one picture and zero followers and a random first name and nothing else. We know birthdays, astrological signs, pet names and parent occupations. I need to know my decoy gets out of high school at 1:53 p.m. Why? If a perpetrator is doing his homework and asks me, what time do you get out of school? I have to be able to say without hesitation, 1:53. We’ve gone so far to say, This is where she goes to Mass on Saturdays at 11 a.m. Because the more controlling types will ask, and they can go online and check that there is a Catholic church in town that has Mass at 11 a.m.

TV REAL: I know not every perpetrator is going to get caught. How do you deal with knowing these guys are still out there?
POWELL: I cry into my Froot Loops mostly! No, truthfully, we recognize that we are not law enforcement. Ultimately, many of these internet crimes against children units are super under-resourced. I cannot make decisions for a prosecutor or a specific department. That’s not to say they’re not willing. Sometimes they are just strapped. We take all the evidence and hand it over. They might take the information to do an independent investigation on their own. They might say, This is a bad actor, can we have your logins and pretend to be your decoy? Or they might say, Please keep doing this, we’ll keep information sharing, we’ll be logged in concurrently and we’ll build a case. Any of these ways is fine. We don’t necessarily follow up and ask what’s happening. We’re not calling and saying, What happened to that one case amid the 800 cases I gave you? There are times we don’t know if an arrest has been made until we read about it in the paper. We have to be OK with that. Sometimes, the wheels of justice are slow. My job isn’t to make them go faster. The only thing I want to do is be helpful to law enforcement. I have to be able to let it go once I’ve passed it off.

TV REAL: Given the global Discovery footprint, are there opportunities for SOSA to partner with groups in other countries?
POWELL: It’s not something we’ve necessarily discussed. I will say people and organizations from other countries have reached out. As much as I complain about laws in the U.S., some other places are way more dismal. The most low-hanging fruit is just raising awareness. When I was growing up, my parents were worried about my safety, but they were worried I’d be walking to 7-Eleven and get tossed in a trunk by one random person. The odds of that are very slim. Now we’re raising kids with smartphones in their hands. The odds of someone sliding into their DMs to say something abusive are very high. I was on Dr. Phil and they had a bunch of high schoolers in the audience. Someone said to the audience, How many have had an adult reach out and say something awful, inappropriate, sexual or abusive? All but maybe one raised their hand. These are conversations I have with my daughters regularly. You have this balance of wanting to educate but not completely scare them. I tell people all the time: If I was a teenager and some guy rolled into my DMs and told me I’m pretty and wanted to be my boyfriend, I would have fallen for him, hook, line and sinker. It has nothing to do with being a smart or good kid. If you’re a kid on the internet, you’re at risk. On top of that, there is no way I would have told anyone. My mom? Absolutely not.