Vargas: It's everyone's job to make sure children are safe

By Joe Vargas

Many of us have been shocked by the story out of Perris, CA, of a couple with 13 children who allegedly held the children as captives in their home. All of the children were suffering from malnutrition and underdevelopment.

The abuse was discovered after a 17-year-old girl was able to leave the home and used a disabled cell phone to contact police. Officers responded and, in checking the welfare of the children, discovered the abuse. The parents, David and Louise Turpin, have been arrested and charged with torture and child abuse.

Now everyone is scratching their heads, wondering how this could have occurred right under the noses of neighbors and relatives. There is no doubt in interviews with neighbors that people had suspicions. That, however, did not include observations of actual abuse. Relatives described the family as very isolated and disconnected. According to her sister, Louise Turpin didn’t even attend her parents’ funeral.

As time goes by, more information will become public and the level of abuse and neglect will probably be staggering.

The question remains: What if someone had called authorities earlier? There is no doubt the family went out of their way to be secretive, but someone they came in contact with must have had suspicions.

It is everyone’s responsibility to protect and defend children. Laws have been in place for decades mandating the reporting of child abuse and neglect by health care providers, teachers, and even clergy. Pretty much anyone whose job involves day-to-day contact with children has to report suspected child abuse.

So what do you do if you suspect child abuse or neglect?

The first step should be contacting your local law enforcement agency or child protective services. They are mandated by law to investigate and respond.

Thankfully, in most cases, police and social workers do not find evidence of extreme abuse or neglect.

When it comes to the safety of children, the legal authority of first responders to investigate and assure their well being is absolute. Frequently, child protective services and police officers will work together to conduct investigations related to suspected abuse. In most cases, first responders will demand to see the children and conduct an initial assessment.

Children can be taken into protective custody if there is evidence of physical injury and extreme neglect. A criminal investigation will also occur.

That being said, issues related to child custody and ill-intentioned reporters are not uncommon as well. These are usually vetted out by the investigating officers and social workers.

Child abuse often occurs behind closed doors and only comes to light when someone decides to say something.

In May 2013, Anaheim police officers responded to a neighbor’s call regarding the well being of two little girls ages 5 and 10. Officers discovered the girls living in extreme filth and neglect. According to news accounts, their caregivers would spend days playing video games. Both girls had never been to school and their teeth were rotted. The neglect had been going on for three years.

Lester and Petra Huffmire plead guilty to felony child abuse and were sentenced to state prison. These little girls were rescued  because a neighbor cared enough to call.

If something doesn’t look right, there is probably a reason. If you see something, say something.

I’m certain all those who never acted on their suspicions in this horrific case are extremely regretful they never called.

Joe is a retired captain. He can be reached at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com.