Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Why Child Abuse like the Turpin Family Horrors Is So Hard to Prevent or Halt: Los Angeles Times, February 6, 2018

Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Why Child Abuse like the Turpin Family Horrors Is So Hard to Prevent or Halt: Los Angeles Times, February 6, 2018

Article excerpt

Hard cases make bad law. That may be the disturbing but difficult-to-avoid lesson from the stomach-turning abuse suffered by the 13 children of David and Louise Turpin for at least a decade.

The Turpins, who are set to return to court February 23, 2018, are an extreme example. It's not only the number of children they allegedly mistreated or even the length of time for which the abuse went on. It's also the fact that--so far as authorities can figure and despite what seems like a thorough search by the media--no one appears to have reported the Turpins to the police or child services. This fact alone makes the Turpin family unlike almost every other case of extreme neglect or abuse that has been uncovered in the past few decades. And it's why any attempt to pass new legislation based on this tragedy will at best be ineffective at preventing similar situations and at worst unnecessarily infringe on the freedom of millions of decent families.

Our system for child protection is hardly foolproof. Those in Southern California will recognize the name of Gabriel Fernandez, the 8-year-old boy killed by his mother and her boyfriend in Los Angeles in 2013 after multiple reports of abuse. In Philadelphia, there was Danieal Kelly, the cerebral palsy-stricken girl who died in 2006 at age 14 after almost a decade of investigations by city caseworkers. In Florida, there was Tariji Gordon, who was removed from her home after her twin brother suffocated and then returned to her mother. She was later found dead and buried in a suitcase.

Political leaders responded to each crime with policy changes of one sort or another. In some instances, they hired more caseworkers or increased penalties for child abuse. They publicized hotlines to call when someone suspected abuse. Something had gone wrong inside our child-welfare bureaucracy--between the moment a report of abuse was made and the time a caseworker decided not to remove a child from his or her home. The changes had limited, if any, effect on the overall success of the systems.

The Turpins weren't even on the radar of that system. It didn't fail them as much as it simply didn't apply. Cut of from extended family years ago, they successfully isolated themselves in Riverside County and other locales. After one of the daughters ran away from home when they lived in Fort Worth, a former neighbor told the Los Angeles Times that he considered reporting them to authorities but decided against it because he knew that David Turpin had a gun. Others who noticed odd behavior simply decided to respect the family's privacy.

The children's isolation was partly a function of homeschooling. The Turpins met California's minimal requirements for the practice. Since their arrest, there have been calls for tightening those regulations. If only the children had been forced to report to authorities in some way, the thinking goes, surely someone would have realized what was going on. But there are reasons to question whether this would have solved the problem.

In her 2013 memoir, Etched in Sand, Regina Calcaterra describes growing up on Long Island during the 1970s and '80s with a mother who beat her and her siblings regularly. (1) Cookie, as Regina and her siblings called their mother, left them alone for weeks at a time with no food and sometimes no heat. …

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