Undercover Underage
A six-part series 'Undercover Underage' follows Roo Powell as she chases down online predators. Image Credit: Supplied

In most homes, a monitor has become another member of the family; a babysitter, a teacher, a never-ending source of fun. And while that’s something that doesn’t need to be scary, it can morph into a gateway to evil – it’s an easy way for predators to connect with children who don’t know enough not to stay away.

US-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says there are almost half-a-million registered sex offenders in America – of these, between 80,000 and 100,000 are missing.

Meet Roo Powell, the founder of Safe from Online Sex Abuse, a non-profit dedicated to catching and putting these people away.

Mum-of-three Powell who catfishes online as a teenager – she is in actuality 38 years old – chats with predators, creates logs of inappropriate responses and then coordinates with law enforcement to capture and prosecute the culprits.

A documentary based on these missions, called ‘Undercover Underage’, is now available to stream on STARZPLAY and Jawwy TV.

Need of the hour

The award-winning writer and child advocate tells Gulf News in an interview that her work is the need of the hour, globally. She explains: “When I grew up, we didn't have unfettered access to the internet. I didn't grow up with a smartphone in my hand, and we’re raising the first generation of kids that is growing up with smartphones in their hand, which means we're really navigating unchartered waters. And I think technology is wonderful. I think it gives us access to a number of really wonderful things, the news, communicating with family and friends, cultures, ideas but it's also an avenue that perpetrators can use to abuse children. And because it's new, we need to have a new way of thinking when tackling this issue. And it is really broad. It is a concern. And that's why I wanted to really put my effort behind helping to stop it.”

Undercover underage
A screenshot from the series 'Undercover Underage'. The team begins work at about 3pm.

Technical glitches and getaways

The new six-part series sees Powell go through the highs and lows of a bait and switch – she can only do so much online and must at some point hand over all evidence to the police. Oftentimes, it is this step that rains misery on her company. “The cases that are the most upsetting are the cases where they [subjects] are clearly doing something that's abusive, that's wrong, that is harmful to children, but it is technically not illegal. And that I find incredibly maddening and disheartening because the fact that they can do all of these things that are clearly harmful to children that clearly cause long lasting damage, but they would never serve time for it, they'll never be penalised for it because those things aren't illegal. They're not breaking a law. That has been really frustrating to see. And it is a shame because in the United States laws varies state by state. And so in some states it's just not illegal to be creepy. But it can still be damaging. They can still be harmful. They can still groom a child without breaking the law.”

There has been a rise in the number of such incidents over the past year – as the pandemic shuttered us into our homes, it also turned screens into favourite playmates, for longer periods. Powell says: “As far as patterns go, yes, there has definitely been an uptick since the beginning of the pandemic. Something like 96 per cent increase. And that is I believe it is a combination of things, and it's a perfect storm. You have kids who maybe weren't on devices before are now on devices all the time, because they have to read because of school, and in their home, there is often less parental oversight because we are in the middle of a global crisis, and people are like, well, you do school from home, and I still have to go to work.

It’s not just parents who are working from home

“And then there's also this element, perpetrators are no longer at their day jobs. They're no longer sitting in an office from nine to five, so they have greater access to children as well. And then maybe they're also feeling more isolated and they're bored. And they're looking for a child to abuse.”

This is draining work – to see, speak to and to expose conversations that at first may seem innocuous instead of the manipulative nets they are. And so it must be done in sprints. “Our days are very strange,” says Powell. “We end up starting our days really late, mainly because perpetrators are often the most active at nighttime. So we probably won't get to whatever location we're on until about three in the afternoon, and then we'll gear up, see where we are with our active cases. We kind of do a rundown and just kind of get a status update on where we are with everything and then we make a plan. And then we communicate with perpetrators (ACMs, adults contacting minors), and we decide who needs to be addressed most immediately.”

Undercover underage
How does one go from looking like a 38 year old to looking like they are a teen? Image Credit: Supplied

How does it work?

Powell is in her late 30s; so, posing like a teen isn’t something that comes naturally. “It requires a lot of work, a lot of smoke and mirrors. I wear wigs, I wear contacts, sometimes glasses, sometimes prosthetics, sometimes braces, and then we use the context of a child's bedroom,” she explains. Powell adds that there’s a support team that helps her with her cover: “We have a really wonderful visual lead whose name is Matt [Monath], and he's responsible for digitally editing me down to what is a believable teenager. And then we also have Shelby [Chikazawa], who is our social media lead. And she kind of has her finger on the pulse of internet culture as well. We have Kelly [Becker], who is head of research. And then we have Avalon [Esposito], who is our story developer, and she is excellent at building out the characters, building our decoys to make them more believable, giving them a really good backstory.”

Compartmentalisation is key

So how does someone not carry their work home with them, if this be the case? The short answer: it’s (almost) impossible. “I do have kids of my own, and so I have to draw really hard lines in order to keep things separate. So the phones that I use for work are different from the phone that I use for home. I don't want the same phone that I communicate with a perpetrator on, to be the same phone that I take photos of my children with a game or a school event. I don't keep photos of my kids in my office, at the SOSA office. And at the same time, I do not bring any work home. I do not do any work from my house because I don't want to be communicating with an ACM under the same roof where I tucked my kids into bed at night. That has been really helpful.

“Same with clothing. If I'm wearing a T-shirt as a decoy, that T-shirt belongs to that decoy forever and ever. If there is a scramble and I have to quickly get on a phone call or a video call, and all I have is the shirt that I'm wearing, I recognise that I am now sacrificing that shirt because I will not wear it again.”

Undercover underage
Wigs and makeup play a massive part in transformations. Image Credit: Supplied

As for how this exposure to online threats filter into parenting style, she says it’s all about communication. ”I am pro-technology, so I do allow my children access to the internet. They do have devices. What we do is we talk regularly about what happens online, and we talk about online safety and what people might want to do on the internet. And every conversation I have with them is age appropriate. But these are important conversations to have because they are starting to use devices at a young age. So it's appropriate to have these conversations when they're young as well.”

M Thenral, Specialist Psychiatrist, Aster Clinic, believes this is the correct way to address the situation as well. She told Gulf News in an earlier interview, “Even kids who are not looking for trouble and are stable are likely to stumble across explicit material on any major platforms. You need to prepare your child about this possibility to protect them being confused about what they could come across,” explains Thenral. “This ‘talk’ should be before letting them using the device but also be recurring once or twice a year to have a clear vision about what they are experiencing at each moment of their development.”

Constant vigilance – that’s how you keep them safe; that, and conversation.