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An app of prevention

November 20, 2023

Woman with long blonde hair smiling.

UVic alumna Lauren Hodges created the new app, Kula Empowered, to help parents and caregivers communicate with children about body safety.

Expectant parents might feel a tornado of different emotions, but when UVic alumna and child advocate Lauren Hodges learned she would be having a baby girl—one feeling overrode the others.

“When I found out I was pregnant with a girl, I was terrified. My first reaction was not joy, it was terror, because I know too much. I know about the dangers that are out there for our young girls and women, and it’s scary,” she says.

Hodges, BA, MSW, DSW, is trained as a social worker and has years of experience working in child welfare. Her background includes conducting forensic interviews with hundreds of children who were abused. Rather than try to dismiss her own valid concerns about her future child’s safety—Hodges put her expertise into action.

During her pregnancy, she was a doctorate student at the University of Southern California (USC). She stumbled upon the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” app, based on the popular book, which delivers snippets of information geared to each stage of pregnancy. She realized that while there are great books on preventing abuse—a busy person does not have time to read them all. An app could be the answer.

Hodges enlisted the help of a developer and created the Kula Empowered app as her thesis to earn a doctorate in social work from USC. “Kula” is derived from the Sanskrit term for community—since looking after children is a shared responsibility. Users receive a push notification once a month with information concerning development milestones for their child (or children), as well as social influences and suggested activities. The content spans ages three to 18, and is intended to promote consistent conversation about children’s bodies and emotional and mental wellbeing.

Women wearing glasses, smiling while holding toddler.
Lauren Hodges at home in rural Florida with her baby daughter.

Promote conversation, prevent misinformation

"I wanted to make it as simple as possible for parents to have access to really helpful information so that they can have these conversations and feel empowered and not awkward or uncomfortable. I have found that by the time parents are asking about when to talk to their kids about these concepts—relationships and consent—our kids already have sought out answers on their own. They have gone to friends or the Internet and have inadvertently become misinformed."

Raised in Langley, BC, Hodges (then known as Watt) earned a BA from UVic in 2007 with a major in philosophy and religious studies. Her adventures took her to Costa Rica, where she volunteered at a group home for children who had been abused or neglected. She found the work rewarding. “I actually met a retired social worker from Arizona, and I said, 'How do I do this every day for the rest of my life?’—and she said, 'You need to do social work.'"

Hodges returned to Canada and pursued a degree in sociology from Concordia, then earned her Master of Social Work from Boston College. She lived in Boston for nine years working for a local district attorney’s office interviewing children who were victims of abuse, exploitation and neglect or who were witnesses to crimes.

“I fell in love with that. Just wanting to fight for kids and work with kids and truly what we found so many times was that kids were coming forward and talking, which was so brave—because most kids don't talk. Their caregivers would say to us, ‘How come they didn't tell me? How come they didn't come to me? How come I didn't know this was going on?’"

A top tip from her years of forensic interviewing is to change the question “why” to "how come" when talking to children. “Why did you do that?” means you’ve done something wrong, whereas "How come you did that?" has a much easier, lighter response to it and is more palatable to children, she says.

Life in rural Florida—with dogs, goats and a pig

While she enjoyed her work, Hodges eventually could no longer endure the cold Boston winters. "I'm a beach bum and I wanted to live my best beach life,” she laughs. Southern California was too expensive, so she packed up for rural Florida, where she now lives with her family, along with a pig, three goats and five dogs. The weather is beautiful and the political climate is “interesting,” she says. She currently leads two teams of child-advocate workers who oversee foster-care placement and behavioural health services in the area.

Hodges notes that 90 per cent of perpetrators of sexual abuse are someone who is known to the child, and a startling 86 per cent of abuse goes unreported. In her work, she has seen many cases of children abusing other children—which she says may stem from their curiosity and a lack of guidance.

“When we actually talk to the child who is perpetrating the sexual aggression, a lot of the time it’s their own curiosity and not knowing that what they are doing is not OK, because nobody is talking to them about it. There's a lack of sex education, there's a lack of parents knowing what to say,” she observes. 

Get a free promo code for the app

The key is that children have a trusted and educated adult to talk to when they have questions. "We're empowering our kids to know what's OK, what's not OK, healthy relationships, boundaries, consent, all of that good stuff so they can protect themselves when they're out in public, and if someone is like ‘Hey check out this video of so and so,’ they know that's not realistic, and that's not what sex is and not a normative sexual relationship. The hope is to get in front of it and educate our kids. Because they're smart, and they know more at younger and younger ages, too."

The Kula Empowered app is available on Google Play and from the Apple store. It costs about $9 in Canada as a download charge, but Hodges would like to offer members of the UVic community free access to Kula Empowered. If interested, please email her at for a free promo code.

 —Jenny Manzer, BA ’97