The story of 13 siblings, mostly children, being tortured and imprisoned by their parents, David and Louise Turpin, in Perris is horrific. For most of us, it is unimaginable how something like this could happen. What possibly could have contributed to such behavior on the part of the parents? What extraordinary isolation from family, friends, and community allowed these conditions to persist for years?
In this kind of situation, we often point to the failure of the child welfare system. The Turpin family somehow went unnoticed. Some might say that they were quirky and considered harmless. To the extent that there may have been reason to question the well-being of the family members, respect for individuality and beliefs deterred any questioning.
Typically, the ties with extended family would be an important source of connection that could have surfaced a concern, but it seems that even in this regard the Turpins were sufficiently distanced from extended family to raise any alarms. Isolated and governed by paranoia and delusions, this family descended into a pattern of behavior that endangered the well-being of its members significantly. It seems that if not for only the determination of one young girl to defy the odds, this heinous situation would still be continuing.
Once again, this kind of a story indicates how vulnerable children are and how completely dependent they are on the good judgement and selflessness of their parents. Absent that, children are at risk of being subjected to harmful circumstances that have long-lasting impact on their physical and emotional health.
How could this have been prevented? Given the vulnerability of children and the frailty of many families, a more embracing approach of the community may have made the difference in this situation. It is unacceptable for extended family members to absolve themselves of the responsibility to look out for the children of family members. It is unacceptable for school systems to abrogate their role of assuring appropriate educations even for children educated at home or through private schools. It is unacceptable for health care professionals to not see beyond the immediate need to understand the social factors that impact health.
The story of the Turpins is not just of a despotic father and mother who failed to protect their children. It is the failure of a community to claim responsibility for all its children, regardless of a family’s ability to support and nourish a child. Children no matter their biological ties belong to all of us. At any given time, families need to be supported by their extended family and community in order to best care for their children. For a parent to resist the support of family and community should be cause for us to examine what might be a more pressing issue.
Although the community was unengaged it is now called to be a refuge for these children who will begin the life-long process of healing from the great harm that has been done. It will require resolve and resources to undo the damage; how much less traumatic it would have been if those in the community had intervened earlier.
Let us take on a new attitude characterized by an embrace of all children and families and develop systems and resources that break down isolation and assure care to the most vulnerable.