On Sunday, a 17-year-old girl from the Southern California city of Perris dialed 911 from a deactivated cellphone. She had escaped from her parents’ home, she told the operator, but her 12 brothers and sisters remained locked inside, some of them chained to their beds.
When Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies arrived at the home of David and Louise Turpin, they found “several children shackled to their beds with chains and padlocks in dark and foul-smelling surroundings,” according to a statement released to the press. But they weren’t all children. In fact, the confined ranged in age from two to 29 years old; the oldest ones looked much younger, apparently due to prolonged malnutrition. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Greg Fellows—a captain with the sheriff's department—summed up the grisly scene by intoning, "I would call that torture."
Since the children’s escape, some neighbors have suggested in interviews that the family seemed “off,” noting they rarely saw the kids out and about, even if they didn’t observe anything that raised a significant alarm. After all, the children were homeschooled—it made sense that they weren’t coming and going as often as most families.
But what’s the protocol for a situation like this, where 13 children and young adults have allegedly been starved, shackled, deprived of anything resembling normalcy? For their part, the Turpin parents were arrested and face torture and child endangerment charges, their bail set at $9 million each—the two were due to appear in court for arraignment Thursday. Relatively speaking, that’s the simple part. For the Turpin children, seven of whom are over 18, the future is decidedly murkier even after they get released from the hospital.
To get a clearer picture of what the Turpins’ next chapter might look like, we reached out to Dr. Deborah Daro, Chapin Hall senior research fellow and former director of the National Center on Child Abuse Prevention Research, and Barbara Andrade Dubransky, the director of families at First 5 LA, an independent county agency that advocates on behalf of parents with young kids.
Here's what we talked about.
VICE: Can you put the Turpin case into historical context? Is there a precedent that comes to mind?
Deborah Daro: I’ve been looking at child abuse cases for 40 years. I have never seen anything like this. It is unprecedented in the number of victims that were in one home, in the number of years that it went on—it’s an outlier in every dimension. So it’s hard to know how child welfare will respond to this, because they don’t see cases like this. It’s on the level of a cult—I’m thinking of cases like David Koresh [and the Branch Davidians] where there’s families and children living in one household under the auspices of a spiritual leader that’s brought people together. When you see this number of victims, that’s generally the situation you see them in, it’s not just from one family.
Barbara Andrade Dubransky: Part of what you want to look at is how many potential opportunities for surveillance that family had. “Surveillance” is a technical term that probably doesn’t sound good to a lot of people, but another way to put it is that everybody is part of a community that they can tap into, and we want to support the norm that parenting is one of the endeavors in life that can’t really be done alone. All families typically have multiple opportunities for surveillance, like the medical community, an educational setting, your neighbors, your family. This is a family where how much of a lack of surveillance they had was completely an anomaly.
A spokesperson for Riverside County Social Services told ABC News the agency tends to favor sibling adoption—keeping kids together. And, for now, Child Services seems to be focused on emergency medical care and determining just how able the adults are to look out for themselves. How do you expect they ultimately fit into local systems of care?
Daro: Child welfare involvement ends at 18. They do keep children that are already in the system until they’re 21, but child welfare doesn’t take on new adult cases into the system. So these kids are going to be following two tracks [the minors and the adults].
These children aren’t heading for therapy right away. They are going to learn you sleep in a bed, you’re not bound, you can get food three times a day and it’ll be nourishing and you can eat as much or as little as you would like. No one is going to be yelling at you, beating you, mistreating you, although we don’t know what kind of physical abuse the kids might have experienced other than being shackled. But we certainly know they didn’t get proper nutrition and they weren’t eating on a regular basis.
Dubransky: We also have no idea if these children have developed disabilities based on their treatment. There are adult tracks for disabilities, both mental-health related and developmental. It’s not typically the child-welfare system’s responsibility, but given the uniqueness of this case I would like to believe that the child-welfare system will make sure that they’re all fully embedded into an adult mental health and developmental-health system for assessments.
In an ideal world, what kind of treatment should they receive?
Daro: First and foremost, their caregivers have to develop some kind of trust and security for these children. The kids need to know they’re not going back to the situation they were in, people are there to protect them, support them, and nurture them. The biggest challenge will be giving these children some sense of permanency and security, when in truth it’s unclear what will happen. Normally, in child abuse cases, they may look for extended family members to take children. I don’t know in this case if that’s going to be an option or not.
Dubransky: We don’t really know what the children understand about what has happened to them based on the variance of age, and how long it’s been going on. For some of them, their sense of how the world works may make it impossible for them to even understand the extent of what they’ve experienced. Which will be something that will be addressed over time and will have to be done very carefully, because you can re-traumatize someone by telling them, “What you experienced is trauma.” It has to come out in a more organic way to not make the situation worse than it already is.
You get to go outside, you get to eat as much as you want—those sound like wonderful things. But for them, that might be stressful. They’re going to be dealing at such a level of sensory experience differences that treatment will have to be done very carefully.
Does it tend to actually make sense for siblings be kept together in an alleged abuse case like this one?
Daro: The one thing they do have is each other. It would probably be important to not farm them out to five or six different locations right away, so there’s some sense of continuity. Especially since the reason they were discovered is that one of the older siblings took it upon herself to get help—there is a very strong protective instinct in that young woman that made the initial call, probably at great risk to her well-being. Sometimes, when we’ve seen victims in one family, older children will say, "I don’t want to see my young siblings go through the same thing I did. I can see what their future looks like and I’m going to stop it."
Dubranksy: One of the valuable things about them staying together is that they all have a different sense of reality because of what they’ve experienced. And if they’re going to reorient to what reality really is, it’s good to have people who are in that same space with you, like, “Oh, did you know that most people go outside every day?” That’s hard to process, and they’re processing it with people that have gone through a similar experience.
What is a reasonable expectation for these siblings’ futures?
Daro: For the long-term prognosis, ideally all of these individuals would have the next decade of their life be much happier than the prior decade. They would find a sense of place, being secure about what they can do and come to appreciate what a nurturing network and social interactions can offer you in terms of mental health, physical health, their sense of self and purpose. These are children who have really been robbed of the basic positive socialization that children need to thrive and adults need to maintain their sanity.
Dubranksy: The Turpins’ new norm may not look like what we think of as normal because of the trauma, so it would be good if society withheld judgment on what their lives should look like now, what healing should look like. The goal of good treatment will be to find a norm for them that takes into account what their lives have been like so far, and I’m particularly thinking of the older ones, the 29-year-old. When this has been what you’ve experienced throughout your life, a comfortable, fulfilling, and hopefully happy life from this point forward for these children may look different from what most people would imagine.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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