5 Things I Learned Pretending to Be a Molested Kid for Cops
This is, quite simply, the weirdest job we've ever heard of.
And we've covered some seriously weird jobs over the last year or so here at Cracked, from used-panty vendor to pickpocket. But everyone we've talked to, even the pot smuggler, worked a job we'd heard of before. So when our anonymous source told us he worked as a "forensic actor," we had absolutely no idea what those two words meant together. Well, it turns out there's a whole industry of adult actors who pretend to be sexually abused children.
No, don't go away -- there's a good reason for what he does. We'll just let him explain:
Grown-Ups Pretend to Be Victimized Children for Cop Trainees
When you imagine someone being questioned about a crime, you probably picture the suspect getting grilled by a police officer under the harsh lights of the interrogation room. That's the only verbal skill you assume every detective needs -- the ability to wrench a confession out of the bad guy, one way or another. For real crimes, though, the cops need to speak to more than just the guy with the prison tattoos and the suspicious red stains inside his Jetta. The victims have a lot of useful information to give, too. And oftentimes those victims are little kids.
And there is the problem -- have you ever tried to get detailed information out of a toddler? They clam up, or get distracted, or just start making things up. You remember that kid in elementary school who claimed his dad was Luke Skywalker?
Not that we ever called him out on it. Why risk a force-choking if you don't have to?
Knowing how to interview kids is a whole skill of its own, especially when they're in the middle of trying to recover from horrific trauma. That's where I come in. My job is called forensic acting, and it boils down to adult actors playing the part of abused children in order to coach police, attorneys, and social workers on how to interview kids about that kind of thing. It is also one of the creepiest jobs on Earth.
This isn't me, but you get the idea.
Sound like a bit of a downer? It sure is! But I'm able to do it without downing my body weight in whiskey every night because I've got a dog in this fight: a few weeks after I got this job, my wife gave birth to a baby girl (daddy wasn't trying to call you a dog, honey. It's a metaphor. Also, daddy doesn't condone dog-fighting).
While every U.S. state has some type of child interview training program, my state (along with 18 others) participates in a national program called ChildFirst, which provides intensive workshops for any professional who might need to interview abused children. Is that a little weird for the cops and attorneys and social workers? Sure. And it's weird for the actor, too. This is not a gig you get to brag about at cocktail parties, because the details of your performance might make some people vomit up their cocktails.
Best to just tell people your job is to try to stay one step ahead of the police and leave them guessing.
So why go through all this trouble? Two reasons: to protect the kids and to keep innocent people from going to jail. See, there was this case -- the McMartin Preschool case -- in which 80 charges were filed against employees for Satanic ritual abuse that never actually happened. It later came out that police had been rewarding the kids who gave them the answers they'd already decided were "right." If you don't know what you're doing, the result can be too horrible to comprehend.
So people like me now get trained in something called the RATAC protocol, which is a guide to interviewing kids without scaring them or leading them to giving the answers they think you want. But that means the trainees need a "kid" to practice on, and ...
The Job Requires a Dark, Awful Imagination
So how in the world does somebody get into a career like this? Well, I heard a rumor that somebody was offering paid acting work, and I was sold based on those three magic words. They don't care about the actor's age, either -- I have a colleague in his 50s -- as long as they can regress into childhood on command.
And if there's one group of people who can put you at ease and return you to the carefree days
of youth, it's police investigators.
The first step was to pass a criminal background check and get fingerprinted. Next, I had to go to a training site (a community college campus) and do what was basically the weirdest screen-test of all time. They gave me an old police report that had all the personal details blacked out, and that was to be my character. See, none of our "characters" are completely made up -- they're all based on real kids, who were really abused. Have I mentioned how creepy this all can be?
So my first case to act out was that of a boy who was being babysat by a trusted neighbor while his parents were out on a date. When they got home, the boy was found naked on the bed in his parents' room. The babysitter seemed nervous, and had alcohol on his breath. That's as much detail as I got -- because that's all the detail the cops had when they'd started the investigation. The rest of the story, what had actually gone on that night, was up to me to invent ... and up to my interviewer to pull out of me. That's right -- this job requires you to be the kind of person who can write the rest of that story, in your mind. Yeah, not quite what I was expecting when I came running at the promise of "paid acting work."
I was hoping for Shakespearean tragedy -- at least I got halfway there.
Since actors tend not to be experts on child psychology, I was given training in "age-appropriate reasoning" -- for example, a 4-year-old wouldn't be likely to remember details in the order of how they happened, but a 12-year-old probably would. I put in hours studying that information and then base my characters' traits upon it. They coached me on making up some tics for my child character: kicking my legs, distractedly looking around, picking my nose. Which is to say ...
It's a Horrible Form of Method Acting
We're not allowed to break character. Ever. Some of the trainees who come in to interview us aren't ready to handle that -- imagine talking to a 30-year-old, but they're acting exactly like they're 6 and really committing to it. We drive some of these people crazy. But if it makes them better prepared in any way for the frustrating work of interviewing a child, then we've all just saved that little kid some pain (and literally no job description can be more worthwhile than "saving children from pain").
Often I'll bring props to further sell my performance. You know how some kids will carry around a favorite toy absolutely everywhere they go? I'll do that, with a little toy car or something. When playing an older kid, I just bring a cellphone, so I'm sitting there playing games and texting. Then they have to drag my attention away from my buzzing glass-and-metal god before they get any information out of me. My job is to make it difficult -- I won't give anything up until they've made my character comfortable with their presence. A real kid sure as hell wouldn't.
If a 6-year-old will remind you their bear is PROFESSOR Snuffles, not MISTER, then you know
I'm not gonna let that shit slide.
I have regular characters I usually stick to -- the 6-year-old with the predatory babysitter I mentioned above and another child based on a real boy who wound up in a very inappropriate photo shoot with his youth minister. The former is shy, scared, and ashamed (and very hard to get information out of, unless he's made to feel safe). The latter is an innocent, outgoing kid who isn't sure if what he did was wrong (he freely talks about it until it gets to the stripping part -- he knows that part is awkward to discuss but still doesn't understand that the youth minister did something heinous).
Again, it's my job to fill in the details on the backstory. So in that kid's case, I made the decision that it never got sexually explicit, but that the youth minister made the kid strip to his underwear and only let his hands graze over sensitive areas as he posed the child for pictures. Does it seem crazy and somewhat unsettling that I'd think that deeply about it? I have my reasons: I wanted a character who didn't necessarily think he was a victim -- in the real world, lots of these kids truly don't realize that they've been exploited. So, in my story, the youth minister told him they were posing as early Bible characters who wore very little covering. It's up to the interviewer to draw out those details and get to the truth.
Never mind that most biblical depictions make everybody look like they're wearing most of a Jo-Ann Fabrics.
If I'm playing the shy kid, I want the person interviewing me to talk to me like a friend, to try to establish some common points of reference ("What kinds of TV shows do you like?" "Do you have a favorite animal?"). Also, I'll staunchly withhold until they assure me I won't get in trouble. There's very little kids fear at that age more than getting in trouble with adults, so it's a common abuser tactic to threaten that they'll be in just as much trouble if they tattle. Getting around that is harder than it sounds -- kids are most often abused by their parents. Since below a certain age level "mom and dad" might as well be "God," the person doing the questioning has to convince the kid that they represent an even higher power without spooking them.
And that isn't easy, because ...
Most Adults Are Awful at Talking to Kids
Again, kids are most often abused by the adults they trust. There is nothing easy about attempting to get a child who has been horribly betrayed to trust another adult, especially a stranger, and some of these trainees have barely ever dealt with kids since their own childhood. I've noticed that when they're still new, the trainee's interview-style matches the profession they're coming from: cops tend to interrogate, attorneys tend to cross-examine as if I was on a witness stand, and social workers try to reach out and be friendly child advocates. All of them are capable of failing miserably in training.
"WOULD YOU FEEL MORE COMFORTABLE WITH A BLANKET AND SOME HOT CHOCOLATE?!"
I mean, wouldn't you? Stop and think what we're asking them to do. You've probably seen in movies and such that they use those little anatomically correct dolls ("Show me where he touched you ..."). Well, we do that exercise, only the "kid" is me, an adult actor. Or, they might have a picture of a little boy or girl and have me label parts (this is where I try to recall what ridiculous nicknames I had for genitalia when I was a kid). Are you picturing this?
So you have some trainees who are just uncomfortable talking with kids in general, but now they have to try to navigate the one subject the child absolutely does not want to discuss (not that any adult is thrilled with bringing up the subject, either). They'll try the textbook methods with me, mimicking what they saw in other interviews, telling me to point to the doll, etc. But kids tend not to want to talk about their genitals with adults, so I clam up. Then, I watch as the interviewer gets pissed off, because it seems like I'm not doing it right. Hey, just wait until you try it with a real kid. They don't let it play out like the textbook says either.
As an aside, when you spend all day making police mad at you it's a good idea to take the bus home.
Other trainees will jump right into asking the hard questions without easing into it (and predictably will get nowhere), then just throw up their hands once they've exhausted everything out of the textbook. Some of them sit there, looking nervously back and forth between their trainer, classmates, and me, expecting me to just give up and make it easier for them. I can see the frustration on their faces.
They're forced to stay with the exercise right up until they thank me and escort me from the room -- everyone still in character -- having gotten nothing from the interview. That's good practice: that happens in real life all the time.
It Can Scar You if You Let It
You can get used to anything, including pretending to be a horribly abused child. But this kind of work can scar you over time. Nobody likes pretending to be a molested kid, and if you do, you should probably seek immediate psychiatric help. During my hiring interview and screen-test, my trainer was very explicit about how real child interviews had gone. She'd heard kids straight-up tell her that they were coerced into having to (in a child's words) "put my mouth on their penis and move it around until it was all gooky inside." Having to imagine and describe those kinds of oral (and anal) rape details from a child's point of view is infuriating, depressing, even nightmare-inducing, and it was no small decision for me to agree to take the job.
See you again in 20 minutes when you've gotten over the impact of those
last couple sentences. We'll wait.
Becoming a father myself is a big part of why I decided to do it. Not only did I need the extra money for (eventually) college and (immediately) bouncy-castle rentals, now it was PERSONAL. After that, I kept with it, not for the paycheck but for the chance to help the state bring predators to justice (trust me, there are other jobs out there that pay more, that don't require you to plumb the darkest depths of childhood trauma).
At this point I train other actors to do what I do, and I don't intend to stay with it forever (everyone has their limits, and again it's probably when you suddenly stop being bothered by this that you should start to worry). But I'm proud of the work I do -- like you, I had no idea this job exists -- one day I just found out that my acting skills could actually be used to help stop child predators. Most actors dream of getting famous or winning awards, but how could anything top that?
Robert Evans's first book, A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization, is available for pre-order now!
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For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Things I Learned as a Cop (That Movies Won't Show You) and 5 Ways Movies Get Gunfights Wrong (Based on Experience).
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