SOSA Founder Talks Catching Child Predators For a Living | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing

Undercover Underage

Roo Powell’s job isn’t your typical 9-to-5. Her day probably looks a lot different from yours. For starters, it often involves pretending to be someone else. During an operation, she starts out by setting up at an Airbnb, one that has already been staged so that most of the bedrooms look like a child lives and sleeps there. The rooms are often painted bright colors, like purple or blue, with fake gymnastics trophies and plush toys in the background. And when it’s time to clock in, Powell doesn’t sign on to her email or hop on Zoom for a team meeting. “The first thing you do is you open up your phone and you send a good morning text to all the predators who demand it,” Powell tells POPSUGAR in an exclusive interview.

Powell is the founder of SOSA, Safe From Online Sex Abuse, a nonprofit that raises awareness about and combats online child sex abuse and exploitation. Part of her job, involves working with a dedicated team and law enforcement undercover to catch child predators and get them off the internet and into jail, which you can watch take place on the Investigation Discovery (ID) show “Undercover Underage.”

“From the moment we get up to when we go to sleep, it’s [about] acquiescing to all of these requests, not just for the sake of it, but because we need to gauge how dangerous they are. We need to figure out their identities,” Powell explains.

SOSA uses decoys who are of-age to pose as underaged girls. They text, call, and sometimes even video chat predators in the hopes of getting them to agree to a meet up where police can arrest them.

Doing this kind of work can be draining, Powell admits. “When we’re in it, we’re in it 16 hours a day. We’re communicating around the clock, and we’re being bombarded with objectification and abusive language and imagery, and just all these things that — thank God we’re receiving — but they’re meant for kids,” she says.

“I consider the mental health of my team all the time,” Powell continues. “It’s always: ‘do you need a break? Do you need to bail? Do you need to stop?’ There’s no wrong answer.”

“I started SOSA because I know what it’s like to feel like you can’t tell someone when something is wrong.”

But sometimes, the days can feel too tough to process. “The hardest days on the job is when we are are talking to a known perpetrator and we know that they have direct access to kids,” Powell says, recalling an episode in season two where she and her team caught someone who works with foster kids for a living. When Powell sat down with him as herself in an interrogation room after his arrest, the predator admitted, “I am who I protect kids from.” Powell reiterates it was “a hard day for the team.”

Still, she reassures me that the mental and emotional challenges of the job are worth it. For her, the motivation goes all the way back her own experience with predatory behavior. Powell recalls being 13 at a family friend’s picnic, and she’d recently gone through a growth spurt. Her mom’s best friend’s husband took notice and jokingly made a comment about taking her out on a date while the other men around him laughed and drank beer. “I remember feeling so embarrassed and so ashamed, and like I couldn’t say anything because, of course, this is this person that I’ve known my whole life,” Powell says. “At the time, I really was trying to excuse their behavior.” But as she sat with it, this feeling of shame lingered and so did the fear of telling someone and having them question what she did to “invite that kind of behavior.” That’s the same kind of feeling many children who fall victim to online predators experience.

“I started SOSA because I know what it’s like to feel like you can’t tell someone when something is wrong,” Powell says. “It’s hard to explain, and you don’t want to be blamed. And you don’t want to feel ashamed or gross. And you don’t even want to admit that like maybe you liked one of the compliments in a string of gross things to say.”

In working in this line of business, Powell has also witnessed the ways in which predatory behavior has evolved. “Now we see that predators don’t have to be anywhere near a kid in order to be abusing them,” she says. And because of that, those online predators can be even harder to hold accountable.

Her best piece of advice for parents is to keep an open mind when it comes to navigating online safety with your kids. “I think that parents need to understand that it can permeate on any single platform,” she says. Just because your kid doesn’t have Snapchat or their Instagram is private does not mean necessarily that they’re less susceptible to predatory behavior. As she puts it: “It’s any platform where two people can communicate.” She has seen it on coloring-book apps, gaming apps, Words With Friends, and even FitBit. And you can’t plan to take away every app with a communication feature. But what you can do is create a relationship with them that isn’t super reactive.

For example, think about if your kid(s) were to break a vase. “If immediately I’m like, ‘How could you break this vase?’ — if I’m going off the rails, flying off the handle because of something that in the grand scheme means nothing, how are they going to think that I’m going to respond if there’s a predator talking to them online?” Powell says. They’re likely going to be scared that you’ll take away their privileges and dish out other punishments. But in instances of dealing with predatory behavior, she emphasizes that it’s important to be “more supportive and less punitive.”

In order to do that, you yourself as a parent, sibling, friend, or cool aunt or uncle should become as knowledgable as possible about the ways in which predatory behavior is occurring today. That could mean watching or reaching out to SOSA to learn more, or joining a support group for other parents and caregivers.

“I think that every kid deserves a safe adult to share stuff with,” Powell says. “And the only way that kids and teens can have a safe adult is if we all know what’s happening online.”

Powell personally makes it a point to talk openly about online safety and predatory behavior in her house. For example, she’s taught her kids that safe adults will never ask a child for help. So if somebody approaches them (online or IRL) and asks them to help them find their puppy or do something for them because it would be a big help, that’s not right. “They don’t need to ask you that. They can just go to the next adult,” she tells her girls. Powell also emphasizes that this shouldn’t be a one-time conversation, but rather an ongoing dialogue. You wouldn’t just have the sex talk once, she says. The same goes for online safety in her house — whether it’s a conversation about who it’s safe to text or why a certain app is on parental mode.

“Ultimately, my girls know that I trust them and they also trust me to help them if they’re faced with a bad situation. They know that Mom’s in their corner,” Powell says. And that’s all you can really hope for as parents.

New episodes of “Undercover Underage” air Mondays at 9/8c on ID and stream on Max.

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