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Home > Research Articles > The Power of Puppetry; Show Teaches Children to Recognize and Prevent Child Abuse

Virginian-Pilot

Monday, March 25, 2002

Simon says tell someone you trust. The purple-haired, green-skinned star of the play "Knock, Knock . . . Who's There?" and his fellow marionettes visited Atlantic Shores Christian School on Tuesday to deliver this vital message of child- abuse prevention. Before the show, the sunny chatter of elementary school students, their teachers shushing them in vain, filled the sanctuary of adjoining Atlantic Shores Baptist Church. As the lights dimmed, they leaned forward, straining to catch every word. And while the marionettes moved about, educating and entertaining the children, their support network - counselors, detectives, judges, commonwealth's attorneys, even Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore - watched from nearby seats. What began as a request from a teacher about 18 years ago turned into five years of research necessary to create "Knock, Knock," said Regina Marscheider, the program's creator. She estimates that she and her fellow puppeteers from the nonprofit Children's Performance Workshop do 300 to 400 performances of the prevention-based program each year all over the country. In the show, two children spend a day encountering some of the potentially harmful situations young children can face. They face a stranger offering candy and a threatening situation on the phone. The girl also has to address the problem of an overly affectionate grandfather, who has crossed the line into potential molestation. In each instance, the child is rescued by Simon, who "represents the kids' innermost feelings or instincts," said Marscheider. By talking with Simon - in essence, talking with themselves - the children are able to overcome each potential crisis. The group recently won a grant from the American Legion Child Welfare Foundation to upgrade the training video it sends to teachers before each show. The video won an Emmy in 1994 for best educational documentary. The protectors in the audience praised Tuesday's performance. Detective Larry Hockman has worked with sexual assault and family violence cases for 23 of his 26 years on Norfolk's police department. In his dual role as police officer and trainer for the U.S. Justice Department, Hockman has seen "all" the prevention programs."Knock, Knock" has his vote as one of the best. "This is perfect," he said. "It's entertaining, non-threatening, upbeat and realistic." Hockman said the marionette show is a refreshingly positive way to get abused children to speak out, compared to the relatively violent child-abuse prevention films he watched as a child. The show directs the children to speak to someone they trust - such as a guidance counselor, nurse or teacher - if they feel they have been victimized. As proof of its effectiveness, Hockman cited a performance Marscheider and her group gave last year in Norfolk. After seeing the show, he said, 36 children came forward over the next few days. Of those children, 5 were involved in circumstances that led to prosecution. The program is based on what Hockman calls the "safety net," which includes a police detective and social worker who work together on each case. This approach means fewer interviews for the child, which means less embarrassment and less chance that the child will lose patience and not follow through. For Mary Pannullo, a board member at Children's Performance Workshops, the show is a way to shed light on a taboo subject. In her role as fund-raiser, she often surprises potential donors when she tells them why she's raising money. She has a standard reply: "Yeah, it's uncomfortable, but it needs to be addressed." Most sponsors are eventually won over, said Pannullo, since the cause is so universally just. "For the most part, our society understands that sweeping things under the rug is something we've done in the past out of ignorance," she said, "and it never solves anything." For his part, Attorney General Kilgore said his office would continue the previous administration's "commitment . . . to decrease child fatalities caused by abuse." Shows like "Knock, Knock" help the cause, he added. "There should be more prevention programs such as this," he said. "It puts it down at a child's level." Reach Matthew Jones at 222-5150 or mjones(AT)pilotonline.com