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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Home schooling helped parents conceal captive children

The 13 Turpin children were "off radar" because in California, home schools are not subject to the same inspections as private or state schools

Captain Greg Fellows of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and Perris station commander addresses a press conference in Perris, California on January 16, 2018, where authorities rescued 13 malnourished children held captive by their parents. Frederic J.Brown / AFP
Captain Greg Fellows of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and Perris station commander addresses a press conference in Perris, California on January 16, 2018, where authorities rescued 13 malnourished children held captive by their parents. Frederic J.Brown / AFP

Police investigating how 13 brothers and sisters came to be kept starving and chained inside a California house have turned their scrutiny on to how their parents may have used home schooling to hide their family from local authorities.

Officials said home schools were not subject to the same inspections as private or state schools and could have allowed the children to be kept off the “radar”.

The squalid living conditions were only discovered on Sunday. An emaciated 17-year-old girl climbed through a window of the single-story house in Perris, 100km from Los Angeles, and called police.

David Turpin, 57, and his wife Louise Turpin, 49, were arrested when officers found the girl’s 12 siblings — ranging in age from two to 29 — in their darkened, foul-smelling house.

“I wish I could come to you today with information that would explain why this happened," said Captain Greg Fellows of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department during a news briefing. He added that their mother seemed confused about why the officers had come to the house and been shocked by what they found.

“If you can imagine being 17 years old and appearing to be a 10-year-old, being chained to a bed, being malnourished, and injuries associated with that — I would call that torture," said Capt Fellows.

The family was not previously known to the local social services department and neighbours said there were no indications of what was happening inside.

Questions are now turning to the way the children were schooled at home. Sherryll Kraizer, a child-abuse prevention expert and the founder of the Coalition for Children, said: “One of the things that was interesting was, he (Turpin) set up his own home school so the kids were unaccounted for and not really seen by anybody.”

Staff at private schools are required to submit to fingerprinting and background checks, but there is no such scrutiny of parents teaching their children at home.

“We are sickened by this tragedy and relieved the children are now safe and authorities are investigating,” said a statement from the California Department of Education. “Private schools are required to register with the state to record their students’ exemption from compulsory attendance at public schools. Under current California law, the CDE does not approve, monitor, inspect, or oversee private schools.”

Some states require home schooled children to take standardised tests or bar parents with the sort of criminal convictions that would disqualify them from teaching at a public school.

A child abuse case, involving eight home schooled children, prompted California in 2008 to introduce a law requiring parents to obtain a teaching qualification. However, there was so much opposition it was quickly overturned.

The result is that the children in Perris existed outside the usual checks afforded by regular daily attendance at school, according to local officials. Grant Bennet, superintendent of the Perris Union High School District, said, “We really knew nothing about them. If they were in home school from the beginning, they wouldn’t even have been on our radar.”

Relatives were also kept away, according to Mrs Turpin’s sister Elizabeth Jane Flores. “She never let us talk to her kids. She wouldn't even accept my Facebook request,” she said. “My parents booked several flights to go see them but when they got there they wouldn't tell them where to go and my parents left crying every time. They died before they got to see them again.”

She added that she knew something was not right but had no idea what was really going on.

"It's just heartbreaking and I'm so embarrassed about all of this,” she said. “Something didn't seem right about her parenting but never would I have expected it to be like this.

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