What that horrible story about imprisoned children says about America

Earlier this month, police raided a home in Perris, California, and discovered 13 children and adults, ranging in age from 2 into their late twenties being kept prisoner by their parents, David and Louise Turpin. They were starved and a number were chained or tied to their beds, and refused permission to use a bathroom. The growth of many was stunted.

How did authorities discover this horrifying situation? The 17-year-old daughter climbed out a window and used a deactivated cell phone to call for help.

Yay for this brave girl, who has suffered more in her 17 years than most of us will suffer in our lifetimes. But everyone else who encountered this ghastly horror? Over a period of more than a decade, it appears that not one person who came in contact with this family, from relatives to neighbors to the many who must have observed something during the family jaunts to Disneyland, felt impelled to call the police, child welfare officials or other authorities.

The case is getting a lot of attention — now. It’s a horrifying story, all but made for tabloid journalism and its modern successor, viral online content. It hits every button out there — the Turpins even owned two very cute dogs — dogs, let me add, that were well fed and otherwise treated much better then the couple’s children. It has even opened a debate on homeschooling, which the couple claimed to be doing and which allowed them to avoid the scrutiny of teachers.

But something getting less notice? The role of all neighbors, observers and others who had dealings with the family. And this deserves a lot more scrutiny.

This is a Kitty Genovese case for our times. Scrap that. It’s a multi-state, multi-decade-long running Kitty Genovese case for our times.

Kitty Genovese is all but an urban legend. A New York City bar manager stabbed to death in a random 1960s attack, the New York Times reported at the time that dozens of people had heard what happened but did nothing to help, not even call police. Subsequent reporting has revealed that not to be the case, but the tale lives on.

Unlike the supposed indifference of the Genovese neighbors, the lack of action by observers to the sad and horrifying saga of the Turpin family and their children is all too real.

While it’s not exactly clear when the severe neglect and abuse of the couple’s children began, it almost certainly goes back close to two decades, when the family lived in Texas.

Ricky Vinyard, a former neighbor who first met them in 2000, told the Los Angeles Times he and his wife knew something was not right with the family but decided to not alert authorities because he and his wife didn’t want “any repercussions” with the Turpins. After the family moved on, he went into the abandoned home and found rot, filth and locks on almost everything, including the refrigerator and toy chest. But still no call to any authority.

The Vinyard family was hardly the only one to ignore the strange situation in their midst, with children barely allowed out of doors. When a child ran away from home, other neighbors returned her.

In California, where the children appear to have barely allowed out of doors — a red flag in itself — yet another suddenly chatty neighbor told ABC News about such things as watching the children forced to march through upstairs rooms for hours in single file late at night and in the wee hours of the morning.

Others who came in contact with the family over the years talked of the children speaking in a “robotic” voices and other behavior that should have raised questions.

Why didn’t neighbors or others get involved? It’s hard to avoid the suspicion they didn’t want to know what was going on in their midst. Getting involved means taking responsibility to evaluate a situation, and take a stand. It means taking a risk and confronting someone.

This is hardly the only situation in American life that involved people looking away time and time again. Take the #MeToo movement. Sexual harassment doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It takes loads of people to look away, from co-workers averting their eyes when forced contact happens, to the superiors and human resources managers who either fail to act, or, worse, protect the harasser when a situation is brought to their attention.

It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that something in American life aids and abets this mind-set. Studies say we are all too often isolated and have fewer friends and social engagement than in the past. We’re less likely to know or interact with our neighbors, too. There is also a harsh rhetoric at work in the country, one that blames people for their own troubles, one that assumes people on Medicaid are somehow malingerers who need to be forced to work in exchange for their basic health care.

Perhaps it’s all of a piece. All too often we lack connection and, as a result, we lack empathy.

Perhaps the lesson of the past year and of the modern Kitty Genovese in Perris, California, is the basic one. If you see something, consider saying something. To someone. To anyone. Here’s hoping we take that lesson away from this otherwise unfathomable horror.

Helaine Olen is a contributor to The Washington Post’s Plum Line blog. Her work has appeared in Slate, the Nation, the New York Times, the Atlantic and many other publications.

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