Sunday Mornings with Rania: They Are Our Kids Too

When news broke of the child abuse, no - the torture, endured by 13 children at the hands of their parents, we as a nation were stunned and heartbroken. We all asked, How does something like this happen? How can parents abuse and torture their own or any child for that matter? How did no one else know? Additionally, I wonder How many tears did these kids shed over the years? How many times were they cold, hurting and hungry? How could we, as a society, including those who knew the family, go so long letting these kids down? This story, their horrible story, cannot just be another heartstring-pulling headline today and yesterday's news tomorrow. What can we do?

Let's Start By Recognizing What Happened:

The Turpins had 13 children, ranging in age from 2 to 29. The children, held captive in the family's tract house in California were abused, starved, strangled, forbidden to bathe, often shackled to their beds, forced to urinate in their beds and deprived every basic necessity. They had never been to a dentist and hadn't seen a doctor in over four years.

The kids were forced to sleep during the day and stay up in the evening. The details of their education are unknown; except for one, none were registered to any school. They were only allowed to journal. Their freedom came when one of the teenaged girls escaped and contacted the authorities after two years of planning. The parents are charged with 12 felony counts of torture, child abuse, abuse of dependent adults and false imprisonment. Mr. Turpin was also charged with one count of a lewd act on a child by force. If convicted, they face up to 94 years to life in prison.

This case presents so many issues. Families living in hiding can do whatever they want behind closed doors. In this case, because the home was registered as a "private school", authorities do not regulate it, which provided the Turpins with another layer of privacy. This means our involvement and response becomes even more critical. 

In some cases, there are obvious signs of abuse:

  • A child is withdrawn from friends and activities
  • Signs of aggression, anger, social anxiety, depression, self-consciousness and/or fear exist
  • Schoolwork suffers, child absent often; once at school, child doesn't want to go home
  • Attempts to run away
  • Physical abuse - child has unexplained injuries, bruises, fractures or burns and explanation doesn't make sense
  • Sexual abuse - child has trouble walking or complains of genital pain, begins to behave in a manner that is inappropriate considering age
  • Neglect - child unusually hungry at school, poor hygiene, lack of proper clothing, poor growth or weight gain
  • Parental behavior - seems off, parent unconcerned, not involved in or interested in school progress or activities, doesn't recognize child's physical or emotional distress, can't explain child's injuries, demeans child, and more.

Less Obvious Signs, When You are Suspicious and We Need You to Get Involved:

  • You know the family has children, but you never or rarely see them. They are not out playing, there are no signs of friends or "life" coming and going. No one knows what school they attend. They seem hidden and isolated. They are unkempt. Don't shrug any of those signs off. Please.
  • Seek these children out and, if possible, talk to them - ask them if they are okay but more than their response, follow your instincts on their status.
  • If you know there are children in the home but never see them - start investigating. Ask around - do they go to a school that anyone is aware of, does anyone in your community ever see them? If so, when do people see them, how do they appear? Do they have any friends in the community?
  • Keep a diary of what you see and observe and when - you may eventually uncover patterns or opportunities to help further.
  • Don't be afraid to make contact with other trusted adults, a teacher or a law enforcement officer. If you cannot find anyone else that has contact with the child, this is a red flag.
  • If you suspect abuse, REPORT IT.
  • If you are unsure but something is not right, STILL REPORT IT. 

It's ALWAYS Your Business but What Rights Do You Have

  • Anyone can report suspected child abuse or neglect. In fact, TX Fam. Code 261.101 states: Any person who has cause to believe that a child has been adversely affected by abuse or neglect shall immediately make a report.
  • Social workers, all school personnel, all healthcare workers, all mental health professionals, all childcare providers and law enforcement officers are legally required to report and are held legally liable for knowingly or willfully failing to make such reports.
  • Is my information kept confidential? All jurisdictions have provisions in statute to maintain the confidentiality of case records. The identity of the reporter is specifically protected from disclosure to the alleged perpetrator in most states. In Texas, however, the reporter can waive confidentiality and give consent to release his/her name.
  • What if I'm wrong? If you follow the reporting guidelines required by the state {which are very easy to do}, you are protected from litigation for your honest suspicions.
  • What if I'm intentionally making false reports? Texas carries penalties in their civil child protection laws for any person who willfully or intentionally makes a report of child abuse or neglect that the reporter knows to be false

Where Do You Report?

If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, or if you are a child who is being abused or neglected, contact the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services or your local law enforcement agency or call 1-800-252-5400.

When I was growing up, there was a sense that families could do what they wanted within their homes. They could also, for the most part, "discipline" as they saw fit. While situations that rose to abuse should have always been reported, it seems there were less cases of this sadistic, physical, methodical and mentally horrifying torture. As society continues to spin out of control, the types of things happening behind closed doors is becoming more and more concerning - and, ultimately, our responsibility to stop. In the Turpin case, I keep thinking about those who knew those children existed - those who attended the couples' wedding or interacted with the family in the early years before the isolation and abuse escalated. Those who were related. Where were those people?

All we know is now, as a community, we will come together, as we so beautifully do, and hopefully support these warrior victims. We can do so by giving financially (links below) and supporting these lives that will start anew. And we, will hopefully, never go back to "business as normal" because after all, these kids should be protected as if they were our kids too.

 

About the author

Executive Director of Crime Stoppers of Houston