Last Sunday, 13 siblings in Perris, California, were rescued from their parents’ house after a teenage girl escaped to call 911. When Riverside County sheriff’s deputies arrived at the home of David and Louise Turpin, they found their children shackled to beds, badly malnourished, and urgently in need of medical care.
The Turpin parents now face a host of charges including torture, child abuse, abuse of dependent adults, and false imprisonment; the father, David Turpin, also faces a charge of lewd act on a child by force. The couple were allegedly tormenting their children for years, possibly dating back to their time living in squalor in Texas. But at the time of their arrest, the parents weren’t holed up in some remote locale—the siblings lived in densely populated Southern California suburbia, surrounded by neighbors. Even so, thanks in part to many of the children being home-schooled, their conduct appears to have gone essentially undetected. That only makes this situation all the more disturbing. Of course, it also begs the question of what can be learned from such a harrowing episode, and how Americans might try to keep an eye out for red flags in their own communities without making things worse.
For some perspective—and some alternatives to calling abuse hotlines—we reached out to Dr. Ronald E. Brown, the president & CEO of the Children’s Bureau, a nonprofit based in Southern California that describes its mission as one to “protect vulnerable children through prevention, treatment, and advocacy.”
Here’s what we talked about.
VICE: What can individuals do in their own communities to help prevent something like this—or something on a smaller scale—from happening, or at least make it less likely?
Dr. Ronald E. Brown: California’s law for mandated reporters hit in the 80s, so firemen, nurses, doctors, teachers [are legally required to report suspected abuse]. But for the rest of us, we can engage with our neighbor if we suspect something, or we can call an anonymous hotline with the county and report what we saw. It’s the county’s job to send somebody out to check and verify these claims, or decide that they are unsubstantiated.
Here’s the conundrum: look at the family from Perris. Before Perris, they lived in Murrieta [also in California]. Before that it was Fort Worth [Texas]. Families that want to isolate, move when they feel there’s exposure—it’s hard to surface families like that.
What might help people get over their initial hesitation to intervene, especially if they aren't legally required to do so?
It’s unfortunate, but this situation in Perris might help people get over their hesitation. We say, “It’s their child, it’s their home, they’re the parent and they have full control of the child,” so we don’t intervene. But in actuality the skill sets for being a parent don’t just show up when you have a child. You don’t get a booklet or a DVD or a YouTube video about what it means to be a parent. You get nothing.
The reality is that [abuse] happens. We don’t always know why. So we can help parents understand what appropriate parenting is: What does it mean when you spank your child? What does it look like when you verbally abuse your child? How do we stand up for children as a community? These are tools we don’t get anywhere, so how do we instill those in our neighbours and create relationships so that families don’t isolate, like this family did? There’s got to be some community education, some platform for the community as a whole to educate our children. All children are vulnerable in all economic circumstances, as this situation proves.
What would that platform for community education look like?
It could take the form of educational programs on good parenting in the community; it could be as simple as putting PSAs on the news. Since 9/11, we’ve used the slogan, “If you see something, say something”—there’s a strong parallel there. We need a public education process on “saying something” about child abuse as well. We need education on universal parenting skills. In the state of California, we have tobacco tax funding for First5 programs, which educate [parents and teachers on how to best address the mental, emotional, and physical needs of children between zero to five years old]. We could use that as a platform for education, or maybe we can use the AMBER alert approach.
Aside from bruises and obvious signs of physical trauma, what kind of things should neighbors be looking out for?
The biggest problem in many cases isn’t the physical abuse, it’s the neglect. Neglect is actually much more pervasive, because that’s more obvious and it’s harder to hide. This might mean children aren’t going to the doctor, haven’t had dental care, or are malnourished. If you see a child and think, Gee, they’re looking a little thin, did they get breakfast in the morning? Do they look like they slept? How does a child respond to you when you say "hello"—do they look down at the ground? Do they shy away? Of course, that might just be their nature, particularly if you’re a stranger, but if you know them, you have to look at changes in their behaviour.
Social service agencies are traditionally and famously overburdened. Are there other avenues people can take to protect kids?
Yes. My work focuses on primary prevention—that is, how to prevent these things from happening in the first place. We don’t have anything for that right now in our society. Up until 20 years ago, our whole system for engaging with children began in kindergarten, and now there’s emphasis on preschool, which starts around age three. But we know that [at least] 70 percent of a child’s brain is developed by the time they’re three, so we’re missing all the formative years. Part of parents’ frustration that may cause them to engage in neglect or abuse is their lack of understanding of child development, the educational processes they need to expose their child to, and a child’s need for bonding in the very earliest moment of those first three years.
I firmly believe that every parent wants the best for child. At least, they start out that way. It might change when they get caught up in their day-to-day, they’re frustrated, they have financial difficulties, or if they have post-partum depression. We need to create a platform for parents to be successful in the first three years and to set a tone of engagement and embracing their child.
What exactly would that platform look like?
Again, it’s really about building parent education and building social support in communities that tend to be isolated. We work in communities where there tend to be a lot of families living together but they don’t know their next-door neighbour. How do we create an environment where parents have an outlet to share their everyday woes, connect, build mutual support in the community? We really want to change community outcomes, not just family outcomes, but we have to do it at the family level. We have to tap into that passion they have for their child when it’s born, and give them the information and skills they need right at the beginning.
How do you connect with families who might need that information?
Primarily we’ve been doing it through word of mouth. Our goal is to get community to help community. We train a group of families, and then the families who have embraced it, we ask them if they want to take it out in the community. So they go give these trainings in parks, in libraries, churches, synagogues, homes, schools. We’re trying to create a groundswell because our resources are limited, but if we give the skills to community members to help themselves, it could be potentially limitless.
And how do California’s social services compare to the rest of the country’s?
I think we’re doing an adequate job. The problem is, we’re just doing an adequate job. But few people are thinking about true prevention, before things happen. So there’s gigantic investment in systems that help kids that have been abused—that’s what the foster care system is. It’s hard to say that you’ve prevented something, it’s hard to quantify that, although there is [research] that claims that for every dollar spent on prevention [and early-childhood development], it’s [many more] saved.
Do you foresee a cultural change in social service agencies toward a focus on prevention, rather than treatment after the fact?
Well, I can dream, can’t I? I wouldn’t do this work if I didn’t believe it could happen. I don’t know that it will happen, but I’m going to give it everything I’ve got to make it happen. Children’s lives depend on it.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.