Cast in neon shadows, Roo Powell has become a master of deception — for good reason.
The 40-year-old advocate for victims and survivors of sexual abuse is at the center of the Discovery+ series, “Undercover Underage,” now in its second season, and often poses as a minor or coaches others who work with her in how to look and act like preteens, all to lure “ACMs,” or adults contacting minors.
Viewers see Powell leading a lean team with the organization she founded, SOSA, an acronym for “Safe from Online Sex Abuse.” In the current season, she and her team are based in a rented home in Canadian County, Oklahoma, where they collaborate with the local sheriff’s office.
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Powell coaches three adult decoys — 12-year-old “Abby,” 14-year-old “Mackenzie,” and 15-year-old “Skylar” — in outmaneuvering men, many of whom are married with children of their own, seeking sexual encounters with underage girls. The decoys, two of them professional actors, have their own faux bedrooms, awash in shades of pink and blue neon and decorated to match their tween personas.
In these spaces, the decoys infantilize their voices, giggle innocently, and slouch in their beds as they log onto video calls with the men who believe they’re preying on doe-eyed underage girls. Powell, just out of the camera’s line of sight, leads the decoys as they document the incriminating and disturbing conversations, the contents of which are ultimately handed over to law enforcement officials.
The harrowing series showcases a stark reality: the internet is a veritable Wild West for children.
Powell, a mother of three daughters, told CBN’s Faithwire open lines of communication are critical in the internet age, particularly as predators become increasingly savvy in the ubiquitous world of social media.
“The internet has permeated our daily lives and I allow my kids to have smartphones and very specific apps,” Powell explained. “What I would say to parents is that it’s really important to have open lines of communication with your kids — just regular conversations about it, not a one-and-done thing.”
“I talk to my daughters regularly about online safety,” she continued. “And I think it’s also really important for parents to build the kind of relationship where kids can come to them when they get in trouble, because what happens online is abuse and I think it’s really easy for parents to react in a way that feels punitive [to the child] … when, realistically, it’s not about being a good kid or being a smart kid; it’s about being a kid online, and they’re faced with these people that are master manipulators. They know what they’re doing; they are seasoned predators.”
While kids are certainly ill-equipped to defend themselves against these perpetrators, Powell and her team — working in tandem with Det. Adam Flowers and the Internet Crimes Against Children unit of the Canadian County Sheriff’s Office — are agile and able to dupe those seeking to victimize children.
SOSA, while small, has technological capabilities and a fine-tuned method that, as viewers see in season two, supplements what the ICAC unit is not yet able to do on its own.
“Working with them was great,” Powell said of partnering with the sheriff’s office. “As you see in the show, I’m also riding along for the arrests, because, sometimes, these perpetrators need to see a kid, a decoy, in order for them to approach. Obviously, I’m 40, and I’m not a teenager, but we do a lot of photo editing and, when it comes down to a takedown, they just need to be able to see me from a far enough distance to go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s her,’ so they can come and get arrested.”
The work, though rewarding, comes with its own risks, including a psychological toll.
As disturbing as the content depicted on “Undercover Underage” is, Powell pointed out the fact that what viewers are seeing has been edited to comply with a TV-14 rating.
“The stuff that we see day-to-day can be horrific and graphic,” she said. “We intentionally made the show TV-14 because we hope that some parents watch it with their teens in order to broach topics about online safety.”
“I think it’s really important to support each other,” Powell continued, referring to how she and her team deal with the emotional trauma that often accompanies these sting operations. “Whenever a decoy’s on a call, I’m sitting right next to her. We do a lot of checking in, a lot of, ‘You can bail at any point,’ and that’s really important.”
Additionally, she said, decoys and SOSA staff members have their own coping mechanisms, noting some turn to prayer and meditation to process the dark and difficult work they’re doing.
“Knowing that it’s us receiving this and not actual children and knowing that we can move the needle — knowing that arrests can be made and these perpetrators are stopped in their tracks — knowing the score is kind of enough,” Powell said. “That’s really what keeps us going.”
She is also heartened, she added, by the number of people who reach out to tell her they were victimized as children but didn’t know until they saw her series that the abuse they endured was not their fault.
“To know that the show also provides healing in some way, or allows people to know they’re not alone, I think is really valuable,” Powell explained. “So anytime things get really tough, we remember the good that comes from this, and that always helps.”
Powell acknowledged she and her team don’t have the psychological or physical bandwidth to commit all their time and energy to decoy sprints all year long.
When the cameras aren’t rolling, the SOSA team also does advocacy work on Capitol Hill, pushing for legislation to protect children from online abuse. They also speak to groups in schools and churches and provide much-needed resources to survivors of sexual abuse.
“If I had to pretend to be a 14-year-old girl every single day for 16 hours a day, none of us would be good to anyone,” Powell said. “I think we would stop very soon; it’s really important to pace ourselves. But knowing that we’re able to help law enforcement … that’s a big win for us.
Ultimately, she continued, it’s “overwhelming” to think about the potential abuse they are thwarting.
“To be able to be a part of stopping that is an honor,” she said, “and we’re really grateful for the opportunity to share in that.”
You can catch new episodes of “Undercover Underage” on Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on Investigation Discovery, and stream the show on Discovery+ and Max.
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