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 Feb. 23, 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 last few decades. And it’s why any attempt to pass new legislation based on this tragedy will be at best 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,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 off 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. Cookie, as Regina and her siblings called their mother, left them alone for weeks at a time with no food and sometimes no heat. While Cookie was using the state’s payments for housing and food to buy drugs and alcohol, Regina and her siblings were regularly enrolled in school.
Occasionally the police or child services would realize something was wrong. The siblings went to live with foster families more than once. But Cookie was a great liar and the siblings — who did not want to be split up into different foster homes — learned to lie as well. The abuse went on for two decades.
More contact with authorities might have reduced the isolation of the Turpin children. But, as sociologist Richard Gelles, an expert on child welfare systems, told me, “it doesn’t confront the issue that some people are able to put up a good front.” That the eldest Turpin son attended community college, earning A’s in many classes, bears this out.
Gelles, who is the former dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that teachers and administrators — like neighbors and relatives — often engage in “selective inattention.” The research, according to Gelles, suggests that people are less likely to report those who look like them and seem to be from the same socioeconomic group. This is particularly true for white, middle-class families. “The more people are like me, the more reluctant I am to report their deviant behavior,” Gelles explained.
Unfortunately, this tendency isn’t something that state or local governments can easily fix. Indeed, despite the horrors of the Turpin case, it’s not clear that we’d want them to try. We are already living in a country where more than a third of children under 18 years old come into contact with child services. Some of these are no doubt instances of real neglect and abuse but others involve kids who have been left in the car while their parent runs into the dry cleaner. Do we really want to encourage people to report on their neighbor’s parenting practices more than they already do?
The Supreme Court has said that parents have the right to raise children without unwarranted government intervention. As Gelles notes, we have created “a legal moat around the house, which very few of us would want to give up.” The Turpins are the terrible but extremely rare price we pay for this liberty. It’s hard to imagine what kind of state intervention would have prevented or halted the abuse.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute studying child welfare issues.