Local theater company seeks to curb child sexual abuse

The thespians at Open Door Theatre act out examples of sexual abuse and coping mechanisms at local elementary schools, giving kids the opportunity and the vocabulary to ask for help.

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The Open Door Theatre cast performs for a young audience.

The thespians at Open Door Theatre act out examples of sexual abuse and coping mechanisms at local elementary schools, giving kids the opportunity and the vocabulary to ask for help.

A quartet of professional actors performs a play that depicts a girl trying to fend off sexual advances by her mother’s boyfriend. Afterward, a fourth-grader approaches one of the actresses and begins to cry. “What if you’re scared?” she asks. The red-haired actress reassures the girl and escorts her to the school counselor. A few minutes later, the counselor emerges with tears in her eyes, her arm around the girl.

It’s just another day for Dorothy Pierce, team leader with Open Door Theatre, one of the few professional theater troupes on the West Coast with a mission to stop and prevent child sexual abuse. Part actor, part guardian angel, the thespians perform plays at elementary schools around the county. Stop it Now is geared for the primary grades, and Talk about Stuff, for grades four to six. 

The plays teach children three Safety Rules, including, “Keep telling until you get the help you need,” and during some scenes the students help coach the characters. Meanwhile, the actors scan the audience for signs of distress. Afterward the cast hangs out, chatting and high-fiving the kids — in a period primarily designed for the students to disclose any abuse they are suffering.

Open Door Theatre’s offices reside in a small yellow house, with slate blue trim, belonging to the Arlington School District. Its charming exterior belies the ugly secrets stored within on disclosure reports.

Some suggest the plays struck close to home — a boy with fingers in his ears, a first-grader becoming physically ill, a girl hiding her head. A young boy, sucking his thumb and pulling it in and out of his mouth rapidly. A fourth-grader jamming her hands down her pants. The plaintive voices of children leap off the pages, describing ongoing abuse, the fear of a jailed offender who is back in the family circle, or an innocence lost too soon.  

It turns out that, after most performances of the plays, at least one student discloses abuse for the first time — often to the actors themselves, who are trained by law enforcement and child advocates. “This is some of the hardest work you can do as an actor, but the most rewarding," said Brian Giannini-Upton, the troupe’s former artistic director.

Since its 1983 founding, ODT has served more than 300,000 kids, both locally and on American military bases in South Korea and Panama. Managing Director Wendy McClure estimates that 1 percent of the audiences disclose sexual abuse. That means 3,000 child victims of sexual abuse have been helped by ODT — in addition to the numerous students who report bullying.

But ODT’s budget has been steadily decreasing, from an all-time high of $132,000 to $45,000 this fiscal year. That means reaching fewer students — about 2,200 this year, half of those it reached two years ago. That’s troubling, especially because the risk of child abuse increases during an economic downturn. “The actors want to do more shows, but they can only do as many as they get the funding to do,” McClure said.

“As a special assault prosecutor, I know the importance of eliminating the silence and shame often associated with sexual abuse of children,” Snohomish Deputy Prosecutor Adam Cornell wrote in an email. “Open Door Theatre provides a light to children and families on a dark experience, by re-educating children in a non-threatening way that it’s not okay to be harmed sexually and it’s okay to talk about it with people who care.”

Sparked by the leadership of victim advocate, Bill France, and former Snohomish Prosecuting Attorney, Seth Dawson, the early 1980s, Open Door Theatre grew out of a group of prosecutors, child advocates, and educators. Their goal was to create a prevention program that would encourage authorities to intervene more quickly.

At that time abuse was treated as a family problem and the stories of victims were often ignored or believed to be lies. The newborn organization licensed a play on the subject being performed in Minnesota. In 1993, local playwright and former chair of the Cornish Theater Department, R. N. Sandberg, penned a new version.

France and Dawson also revolutionized Washington's legal framework around child sexual abuse investigation and prosecution, making the state a leader in progressive laws. “We were young, radical and pissed off,” recalled France, a silver-haired man who speaks with quiet determination.

After the 1986 beating death of 3-year-old Eli Creekmore by his father, Dawson led the fight for state laws that would make death by child abuse equivalent to first degree murder, and that would require and fund child sexual abuse prevention programs in the schools.

There was certainly push-back. When France testified, several of the lawmakers he faced claimed, "‘You’re teaching kids to report on their parents. It’s like Communism.’”

Still, the pair wasn't deterred. In one case, France marched into a police chief’s office to demand he question a sexual child abuse suspect, a prominent businessman. “The things we tried to do hadn’t been done before,” France said. “You don’t counteract that by being polite. You have to be confrontational.”

Their efforts paid off. “By the early 1990s, the Prosecutors Office was able to document that the average age of the reporting victims in child abuse cases fell from about 12 years to nine and concurrently, there was a marked increase in the number of sexual touching charges, as opposed to crimes involving penetration,” said Dawson. “Unfortunately, kids need to be taught the skills, because abusers are still out there.”

In fact, one in four girls and one in six boys will be victims of sexual abuse during their childhood. In Snohomish County alone, 35,000 children are in potential need of intervention and treatment. These numbers come courtesy of the website of Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center, a revolutionary center established by Dawson and France in 2006.

It is the only child advocacy center statewide to house law enforcement, prosecutors, medical and social services personnel, victim/witness advocates, and counselors under one roof for sexual abuse investigations, according to Snohomish Prosecutor Mark Roe. It was also the first of 12 in Washington to be nationally accredited.

Last week Dawson was in Olympia, fighting to save their two-year $1.2 million budget, which Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed the state eliminate.

Meanwhile, the importance of addressing child sexual abuse has once again come to the fore of national attention. The arrest of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky has been splashed in the headlines; his former boss, Coach Joe Paterno, was fired in November for failing to contact authorities after a graduate assistant reported seeing Sandusky rape a boy in the school showers. Syracuse University also fired its long-time assistant basketball coach, Bernie Fine, in November after evidence surfaced that he sexually abused three boys.

France compared these recent events to the international child abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church. “The leaders are almost worshiped,” France said. “There is a code of silence. Paterno is the winningest coach in church history and that church is the United States.”

Sandusky’s justification to television journalist Bob Costas, describing the alleged shower attack as “horseplay” and his halting reply when asked if he was sexually attracted to children, had a familiar ring to France, who counseled offenders for a time. “I’ve been hearing that for 30 years. It sounds like most of the interviews with the guys who have been caught.” The accused, “has to create a story you can make distorted sense of,” said France. “It’s all an elaborate lie.”

The fact that the initial eyewitness account of Sandusky's alleged abuse was not reported and properly dealt with, “[It] speaks to Open Door’s prevention part — encouraging disclosure so authorities can investigate it before other kids become victims,” Dawson said. “You have to think that other kids were abused after this happened. That probably could have been prevented.” Both France and Dawson praised the schools for acting quickly to fire the coaches. “We’re making great progress in protecting kids,” said France.

Open Door Theatre hopes that all of this media attention will help draw attention to their cause. “We’ve been discussing ways this situation and others like it can support the delivery of our message and complement fund-raising,” said ODT Board President, Wayne Robertson. “Open Door Theatre was struggling in the economy before the economy was struggling. We don’t have the capacity or a great infrastructure for raising money. We don’t have a huge board or corporate sponsors or the capacity to do auctions.”

While the organization collects a small fee from schools, with supplements from PTAs and service organizations, “both school and PTA budgets are stretched. In the past we had some good foundation support but now it’s more of a struggle,” said Robertson. “Thank goodness we get funding from the cities and the county. We’ve been around a long time and we’re pretty resilient.”

But even that is decreasing. This year it lost a $10,000 county Community Mobilization Grant, due to the state’s ongoing budget crisis. And last year ODT planned for $61,000, but was only able to raise $44,000.

A $12,000 Community Development Block Grant from HUD for low income areas was initially approved by Snohomish County — then rescinded retroactively. The agency claimed that the non-profit did not carry sufficient hired auto liability insurance for transporting cast members to and from performances.

In the interim, before it obtained a new insurance policy and was re-awarded the grant, ODT racked up “thousands of dollars, plus interest,” on its credit card, which it is still paying back, said McClure. “That setback was bigger for us than a larger organization that can absorb it differently,” said McClure.

According to Bo Tunestam, Snohomish County human services specialist, “It was strictly a risk management issue on the part of the county,” because the group did not carry the standard level of liability insurance for those services. But the issue was not flagged until half the year elapsed and the county couldn’t retroactively reimburse the group. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t raised earlier and Open Door Theatre suffered financial losses in the process,” Tunestam said.

Still, the actors don’t let limited budgets dampen their enthusiasm. They melt in and out of roles, dancing or wearing silly hats to keep the kids amused. Actor Kori Just sports a buzz cut and a goofy big-kid charm, but can also be threatening as Ray, a grown-up who tries to lure Nancy, the daughter of his girlfriend, into a sexual relationship by giving her a massage.

Brittany Fredette, the troupe’s youngest member, plays Nancy, who finally gets him to stop as the audience coaches her with Safety Rule No. 1 — “Say no, like you really mean it.” Meanwhile, Pierce portrays Nancy’s mother, who doesn’t believe her until Nancy asks for help from Uncle Phil, played with the gentle presence of actor Jonathan Reis.

Afterward students practice their safety rules, while watching the actors perform a scene where a teenager shows a younger boy cell phone pictures of people taking showers. They talk about good secrets and how bad secrets make them feel. They also cover safe and unsafe touches. Plus confusing touches. 

Once the kids are back in class, the actors consult with school counselors, discussing the children's reactions to the play and any disclosures they may have made. 

Hearteningly, some stories ODT staffers hear actually validate their message — both for themselves and the kids in the audience. Three years ago, a girl sitting next to the principal announced, “‘My grandpa touched me, and now he’s in jail,’” Pierce said.

When kids say something bad happened, but it went through the legal system, “that’s awesome — they did something about it,” Just noted. “The other kids can look at that and be encouraged.”

But things don't always work out. OTD Artistic Director, David Kline, and his wife, Anne Zanatta Kline, a former ODT actress, recall testifying in a court case involving an 8-year-old girl, who'd been abused by her step-father and forced to play a "secret game."

"The really important thing he said was, 'If you tell anyone, Mommy won't love you anymore,'" remembers Anne. "The mom didn't believe her and gave her up. She went to live with her biological father. His threat came true." 

To cope with the sheer volume of child abuse cases they're exposed to, Open Door staffers often try only to remember a few tales. “It’s heartbreaking,” said McClure, recalling a ten-year-old girl, molested by her step-father on a road trip, who was warned not to tell. Pierce told me about the second-grader who collapsed sobbing against a wall. “It was gut wrenching,” said Pierce, her hazel eyes growing glassy. “The child said her father had been abusing her and her sister. It was terrible. It hurts us. We love kids and we want to teach them to be safe.”

Though staffers don't always learn the results of their interventions, they do get to celebrate some happy endings: The 10-year-old girl who was molested by her stepfather on a road trip and warned not to tell, told her friend who had attended an ODT play and together they told the school counselor. The man was tried and convicted, said McClure.

And the fourth-grader whom Pierce escorted to the school counselor? The next year her mother attended a performance and revealed that her daughter’s godfather had molested her, but he was being prosecuted. The daughter had received counseling and was doing well. “The mom got the PTA to budget two extra shows at the school. She’s our biggest and huge-est fan,” said Pierce. “We know for sure we helped one child.”


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Laura Kaufman

Laura Kaufman, an award-winning journalist, is writing a book about First & Pike News.