The weeds and grass sometimes grew four or five feet tall on the lawn of the house in a middle-class neighborhood in Perris, one of the largest cities in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles. No toys or bicycles were ever seen in the driveway, where four new cars were regularly parked. There was no evidence of children being on the premises. But, there were a few strange exceptions.
When code enforcement officials cracked down on the condition of the property, several children could be seen late at night, mowing the lawn or rolling out new sod. One of the neighbors who witnessed this activity was Kimberly Milligan, 50, who said that the children seemed to be very young and pale. According to Samantha Schmidt and Lindsey Bever, writing for the Washington Post, Milligan said, “I thought they were very young — 11, 12, 13 at the most — because of the way they carried themselves. When they walked they would skip.”
She also noticed that their skin was “white as paper.” In fact, the lawn tenders could have been some of the adults who, along with their younger siblings, had been held captive in the house by their parents, David Turpin, 57, and Louise Turpin, 49.
Another neighbor, Andria Valdez, told the Press Enterprise that her family “joked that the Turpin family were like vampires from the ‘Twilight’ series.” According to Amber Jamieson of BuzzFeed News, “They only came out at night. They were really, really pale.”
A third neighbor, Robert Perkins, told Jamieson that he saw the children constructing a nativity scene on the lawn late at night. That same evening, Milligan was walking past the Turpin house and stopped to compliment the children on the Christmas decorations. She told Schmidt and Bever that when she spoke to the children, “they actually froze.” Milligan apologized for startling them, explaining that there was no need to be afraid. But, she said, “They still did not say a word. They were like children whose only defense was to be invisible.”
The Turpin house
The truth about what happened inside the Turpin house began to unravel on Sunday morning when a 17-year-old girl managed to grab a cell phone and squeeze through a partially open window. She dialed 9-1-1 and told authorities that she and 12 of her siblings were being held against their will, some of them shackled to beds and other furniture with chains and padlocks.
When officers found the girl’s siblings, they believed them all to be children. However, several were actually adults, with the ages of all 13 children ranging from 2 to 29. The victims lived in the foul-smelling house without access to food or water. When rescued, they told officers that they were “starving.” The seven adults (ages 18 to 29) were initially thought to be children because they were small in size, malnourished, and emaciated.
Josh Tiedeman, another neighbor who had glanced at some of the children at one time, told The Associated Press that the kids were “super skinny — not like athletic skinny, like malnourished skinny.” According to Matthew Haag and Louis Keene of the New York Times, officers from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office said that the “17-year-old girl who called 911 looked to be 10 years old.”
Betty Turpin, David Turpin’s mother, told Sonya Hamasaki and Darran Simon of CNN that, “This is a highly respectable family.” David was an engineer at Northrup Grumman, earning $140,000 a year, and Louise was a homemaker. However, the couple had filed for bankruptcy twice, due mostly to credit card debt and a foreclosed farm in Texas. Speaking of her son and daughter-in-law, Betty Turpin avowed, “They were very protective of the kids.”
Emily Shapiro, Matt Gutman, and Jim Vojtech, reported for ABC News, “The distraught grandparents added that David and Louise Turpin are considered a good Christian family in their community….” The grandmother said, “God called on them” to have so many children. The children were given “very strict home schooling,” and some of the kids were given the task of memorizing the Bible in its entirety. When the grandparents visited, they noticed that the children “looked thin,” but they seemed like a “happy family.”
All of the Turpin children appear to have been “home schooled,” and David Turpin was listed on California records as the principal of Sandcastle Day School, a private school with the same address as the Turpin one-story stucco house. Currently, the school claims six students in grades 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12. All of the children are being treated in local hospitals and the Turpins are in jail, being held on $9 million bail each.
Sociology of isolation
When I was a college student studying sociology, I read Kingsley Davis’ classic, “A Final Note on a Case of Extreme Isolation.” The report involved two children, called Anna and Isabelle, each of whom was kept in seclusion, having little or no contact with other human beings. Later, as a professor of sociology, I encountered similar cases in the literature. And, shortly after I started writing this column in 1999, another case was discovered, also in Riverside County.
All of the cases showed the disastrous effects of social isolation on normal human development. They settle the nature-nurture debate that was popular during the 19th century. Nature (or, more specifically, genetics) gives us the potential to achieve the status of human, but nurture (that is, socialization) is necessary for us to realize that potential.
In Davis’s study, Anna and Isabelle had inherited the potential to attain human status, but they lacked the socialization process. When found by public health workers, they had none of the social characteristics that we associate with human beings.
The Turpin children have not experienced the extreme conditions that bring about this serious deficiency. To begin with, they had each other. Moreover, they had some minimal contact with outside society when their parents took them to Disneyland and to Las Vegas to participate in the renewal of wedding vows between David and Louise. And, of at least equal importance, they have the facility of human language.
All of these factors will be important as physicians and psychologists work with them over the next several months or years to help them achieve meaningful lives.
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Jim Glynn may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.