It’s not the average acting gig.
Six days a year, Trudy Monette plays Rosalind, a 12-year-old girl whose teacher touched her inappropriately. Sullen and slouching, Rosalind guardedly answers questions about what Mr. Gibbs did: how he grabbed her shoulders, how she could smell his foul breath as he forced his mouth on hers.
She plays the role again, and it goes differently. Sometimes she gets angry, other times she weeps. There is no script.
Rosalind is a creation of CornerHouse, a Minneapolis nonprofit that trains police, social workers and child-protection officers to interview children who have been sexually abused. One of the country’s leading child-advocacy centers, it has revolutionized the way traumatized kids have been treated, by humanizing and streamlining the interview process.
It also has helped law enforcement officials do something that may not come naturally: listen.
“You get that stereotype of the big deputy dressed in brown and they’re intimidating and they’re authoritarian,” said Anne Lukas Miller, a CornerHouse trainer. “To sit with a child and say, ‘My job is to listen to you,’ people don’t know that that is also part of [police officers’] jobs, and they need to be reminded of that.”
CornerHouse trains about 1,100 professionals a year in weeklong sessions conducted here and abroad. Most of the week is spent learning about child development and interview techniques. On the last day, trainees practice what they’ve learned by role-playing a forensic interview.
In an unusual intersection of crime and the arts, local professional actors stand in for victims.
“It’s a really fulfilling job,” said Jamila Anderson, an associate company member at Pillsbury House Theatre. “The more we can prepare these people who are going to be interviewing children, the better it is for children in the system.”
With heightened attention, of late, on how police relate to the people they are charged to protect, officers say the training helps them be more sensitive to victims.
“Typically as law enforcement, you interview and interrogate to get answers that you want — who, what, when, why, where — and you’re not being mindful of the person’s needs,” said Bruce Coonfield, a patrolman for the police department in Ada, Minn., who recently took the training. But with CornerHouse’s protocol, “you don’t just ask them the question right out.”
Telling their story once
Children who have made an allegation of sexual abuse come to child-advocacy centers to be interviewed and examined by professionals who are trained specifically to work with kids.
Instead of subjecting children to repeated interviews with police, child protection and the county prosecutor, CornerHouse interviews a child just once. It was one of the first organizations in the nation to adopt this approach. Now more than 850 such organizations in the country follow this research-driven model.
“These types of centers are wonderful, and they are very needed,” said Bette L. Bottoms, a researcher on child-witness interviews at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “[Bringing] the results of psychological research to front-line workers is extremely important.”
Every child sexual abuse investigation in Hennepin County lands at CornerHouse, which conducts about 500 interviews a year.
“It’s better for the child,” Amy Sweasy, senior assistant Hennepin County attorney, said of the single-interview approach. “The research tells us not to push somebody through retelling a story over and over again.”
In addition to conducting interviews, CornerHouse is a leader in interviewer training. Its use in role-plays of professional actors, first recruited from Illusion Theater 20 years ago, is unique.
“It’s so beneficial having professional actors portraying the kids,” said Julie Stauffer, a CornerHouse interviewer who manages the actor program. “You get so much more of a real perspective.”
An effective teaching tool
While some first-time trainees have expressed concern about interviewing adults pretending to be children, the role-playing has proved to be very effective.
“I felt like I was talking to a 5-year-old little girl,” said Celena Lusk, a Muskogee, Okla., child-protection worker.
Most actors who participate have two roles in their arsenals, usually a teen and a young child. CornerHouse provides the age, the identity of the perpetrator and the abuse situation, and the rest is up to the actor. Because they never know what an interviewer might ask, the actors concoct elaborate back stories.
“I get asked some weirdly specific questions, and it’s a lot easier to draw from personal memory as opposed to making something up,” said Chase Burns, a recent graduate of the Guthrie Theater acting program at the University of Minnesota.
That’s the easy part. Eventually, the questions turn to why the child is there in the first place.
“Do you know why you came to talk to me today?” a trainee asked Monette as she played Rosalind.
The pair sat facing each other in the corner of a classroom. Arms folded, barely audible, Rosalind was every inch the classic preteen who didn’t want to talk. But after 30 minutes of careful conversation, the story was out. She had entered Mr. Gibbs’ classroom alone and had a bad feeling. He looked her up and down. Then, he grabbed her.
“I just stood there like a dummy,” Rosalind said.
Drawing from her past
Talking about the abuse, even in character, is “definitely kind of icky and dark,” said Burns, the U grad.
For that reason, he chose to create characters that didn’t feel victimized. His 5-year-old is “oblivious” to the act, and his 14-year-old believed he was in a consensual relationship — both of which are very real responses to abuse.
By putting their own feelings on the line, the actors are integral to the training, said Patricia Harmon, executive director of CornerHouse.
“The information, the process, the data that our learners get during the training week is obviously very important, but the ability to practice that is huge,” she said. “It’s the application of what they learned.”
For Monette, the emotionally taxing role has an even deeper meaning, because her character, Rosalind, is based on herself.
When she was in middle school, her teacher, too, forced a kiss. Playing the role for 15 years with CornerHouse has kept the memory from fading.
“I remember his gray pants, his yellow shirt, the T-shirt underneath, the stains under his arms, his breath, everything,” she said. It was a secret she carried for decades.
Though she relives the experience every time she plays Rosalind, she still struggles to share her story.
For many victims, a sense of humiliation lingers long after the abuse. Monette has direct access to that feeling, even now. “All these years later,” she said, “there’s still a shame behind it.”