How Did Riverside County Child Imprisonment Go Undetected?
The home of David and Louise Turpin, surrounded by members of the press, where they kept their 13 children captive on an otherwise ordinary-looking suburban street in Perris, a bedroom community of 76,000 in Riverside County, 70 miles east of Los Angeles. (Marcus Teply)
After its suburban horror story shocked the nation, people in the Perris subdivision of Monument Park are realizing how little they knew about their neighbors.
“It's incredible,” said Francisco Sahagun, out for a walk with his Chihuahua, Riley. “Who would ever think that something like that was happening in your own neighborhood?”
Sahagun lives with his adult daughter and her family just blocks from where David and Louise Turpin allegedly kept their 13 children captive on an otherwise ordinary-looking suburban street in Perris, a bedroom community of 76,000 in Riverside County, 70 miles east of Los Angeles.
In the new middle-class subdivision of Monument Park, two-story stuccos are fronted by tidy front gardens, basketball hoops and the occasional American flag. With its spacious new houses and wide streets, Sahagun says, it's a nice neighborhood. But it isn't really a neighborly place.
“I grew up in a farming community,” Sahagun says. “You knew your neighbors even though they lived half a mile away.”
Here, he says, “That doesn't seem to happen. Even with just a few feet of separation, everyone kind of keeps to themselves. They don't know each other.”
Local media say the Turpins moved into their four-bedroom house on Muir Woods Road in 2014. Neighbors noticed they were... different. It wasn't just that they left their trash cans out past pickup day, or let their lawn die, a yellow patch in a row of tidy green squares.
There were children in the house, but they never seemed to come out to play. When neighbors caught a glimpse of them, they seemed unnaturally pale.
Sherri Kreissig, the president of Monument Park's neighborhood watch group, met the Turpin children just once, at a community contest for Christmas decorations that the family had entered.
“They all had kind of that blank look on their face, and that plastered smile and whiteness and deep set eyes,” she recalls. “It looked very strange to me.”
But she points out, it's hard to know where to draw the line between different, and dangerous.
“There's a lot of strange people out in the world. And you know, I don't want to be judgmental,” she says. “I think that's where most people are. They don't want to intrude.”
And no one did – until a 17-year-old girl escaped through a window Sunday morning and phoned 911, later leading authorities to the house and a scene of horror inside: her 12 siblings aged two to 29, emaciated and filthy, some shackled to beds, apparent captives of their parents.
No Authority to Monitor Home Schools
Why didn't authorities act sooner? Local media reported that the house was registered with the state as the site of Sandcastle Day School, a private home school, with just six registered students. David Turpin was named as the principal.
But in a statement, the California Department of Education said that under state law it has no authority to monitor or inspect home schools like the one the Turpins registered.
Neither the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, nor the Department of Public Social Services, said they got calls that anything might be wrong.
In a press conference Tuesday, Susan von Zabern, director of the Riverside Department of Public Social Services, said the community has a vital role to play.
"We want to highlight the importance the community plays in providing us with information about abuse and neglect. We encourage anyone in the community to call our hotlines or call law enforcement whenever they have a concern about abuse or neglect, whether it is impacting a child or a disabled adult or a senior," she said.
Neighborhood watch leader Sherri Kreissig says, it's not always that easy.
“On some of the national [news shows], people are, like, criticizing the whole neighborhood, because we didn't know. You never know what goes on behind closed doors!”
She says that needs to change. She hopes that the tragedy down the street can be a teaching moment, with the lesson that people need to know their neighbors and reach out when something seems wrong.
“I think people will be more open to listen, they will heed their small little voice... that says something's just not right,” she says.
Kreissig hopes to recruit more volunteers for Monument Park's neighborhood watch patrols. And this week, Monument Park will meet with city and county authorities, to talk about ways to look out for their neighbors and how to spot child abuse – and make sure nothing like this goes unnoticed again.
“This is a big, big wake up call for everybody.” she says. “We need to know who our neighbors are. Because nobody wants to be the next-door neighbor that didn't know.”