California 'house of horrors' shines spotlight on home schooling

Harriet Alexander
David and Louise Turpin's faces are shown at a press conference in Riverside, California, where the horrific conditions inside the Turpin home was detailed - REUTERS

A California politician has begun drafting legislation to give greater oversight of home-schooled children, in a bid to prevent a repeat of the horrors of the 13 children imprisoned in his district.

Jose Medina’s constituency includes the small town of Perris, where last week David and Louise Turpin were arrested and charged with torture, child abuse, imprisonment and, in the case of Mr Turpin, sexual assault.

“What happened in the city of Perris was tragic, and it was horrific,” Mr Medina told The Telegraph. “And I would like to try to do everything I can to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

The Turpins' 13 children, aged between two and 29, had all, except the eldest, been exclusively home-schooled - meaning that, under California law, there was no outside contact.

“One of the reasons this went undetected was because the parents could keep the children hidden from the public,” said Mr Medina. “So I’m looking at what the state can do, so that kids can no longer be kept in captivity.”

David and Louise Turpin in court in Riverside on Thursday

Two million children in the US are home-schooled, representing three per cent of all American youngsters, according to the Mike Smith, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). The trend began in the 1970s, he told The Telegraph, but has increased in recent years.

By contrast, in the UK only 30,000 children were educated at home in the 2016/17 academic year, out of over eight million. That figure, however, represents a 97 per cent increase since 2011, when just 15,135 pupils were classified as home taught. In the UK, children are largely home-schooled due to competition for places at in-demand educational establishments, whereas in the US the decision is largely taken for moral and religious reasons. 

Mr Turpin registered his home as an educational institution in 2011, naming it Sandcastle Day School – a bitter irony, given that prosecutors now allege his children were rarely allowed outside, and rarely in daylight.

He submitted the necessary renewal forms every year, but that paperwork, known as a private school affidavit, is all that California law requires of home schools, and the information sought by the California Department of Education — such as address, type of school, enrollment — told authorities little about the children’s lives.

The Turpin family presented an image of happiness on their Facebook page

Neither the Department of Education nor the local school districts had any legal responsibility to knock on the Turpins’ front door, review their curriculum or assess their children’s academic performance. 

Furthermore, under the law, private school employees must submit to fingerprinting and background checks, but there is no such demand placed on parents teaching their own children.

“We are sickened by this tragedy and relieved the children are now safe and authorities are investigating,” said a spokesman for the California Department of Education in a statement sent to reporters.

“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.”

“We really knew nothing about them,” said Grant Bennett, superintendent of the Perris Union High School District. “If they were in home school from the beginning, they wouldn’t even have been on our radar.”

According to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), a charity which campaigns for more active oversight of home-schooled children, California is one of 15 states that ask little more of parents other than that they register with the state.  Eleven other states don’t require parents to submit any documentation, including Texas, where the Turpins lived for a time.

The people who moved into David and Louise Turpin home in Fort Worth, Texas in 1999 took photos of the filthy carpets caked in dirt

Rachel Coleman, executive director of the CRHE, and Kathryn Brightbill, CRHE’s legislative policy analyst, point to a 2014 study of child torture by Barbara Knox, a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin. She found that 47 per cent of school-age victims had been withdrawn from school for home schooling, and an additional 29 per cent had never been enrolled.

They also highlight cases of other tragic home schooled children, such as Calista Springer, a 13-year-old Michigan girl who died in a house fire in 2009 when she was chained to her bed, and Christian Choate of Indiana who was kept naked in a cage and died in 2009, at age 13, but his death was not discovered until two years later. 

In Ohio, a couple forced their 11 adopted special needs children to sleep in cages, while Mitch Comer, from Georgia, spent four years locked in a bedroom in his family’s home. When he turned 18, his parents put him on a bus to Los Angeles with pamphlets for homeless shelters.

“Abuse in home school settings is all too common, even if it doesn’t always make international headlines,” they wrote, in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. “For families like the Turpins, mandatory reporter contact could mean the difference between death and rescue.”

The Turpin family home in Perris, California

Mr Medina, a former teacher, insists that he does not wish to ban home schooling entirely.

Indeed, home-schooling advocates – of which there is a doggedly-determined legion – invoke their Fourth Amendment right ”to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”. Furthermore, they cite a 1965 Supreme Court case, Griswold v. Connecticut, which ruled that the state could not inspect a home-schooling establishment.

Mr Medina says he is simply looking at ways of preventing abuse – perhaps with an annual visit.

“The government intrudes on many aspects of life,” he said. “Education is mandatory until high school – that’s an intrusion. Vaccinations must be administered for children at public schools. The state says we must wear a seat belt, or a helmet if we ride a motorbike.

“It’s usually for the greater good. And I’d say this, too, is for the greater good.”

Mr Medina says he is yet to receive any challenge from home-schoolers, but welcomes the debate. And Mr Smith, of the HSLDA, is ready for a fight.

“No regulation would stop what happened in Perris,” he told The Telegraph. “When something this drastic happens, I understand that you try to fix the problem. But home schooling is not the problem – the problem is abuse and neglect.”

The Turpin family

Half an hour north of the Turpin’s home, a group of mothers and their home-schooled children gathered in a park for their weekly meet-up.

Erin Reeves, 49, a former teacher, has home-schooled all of her four children, who range in ages from 10 to 20. She chose to home school them, she said, to tailor the education to their own interests and strengths.

“I would find it incredibly offensive if someone from the government came to inspect how I educate my children,” she said.

But why, given that she has nothing to hide?

“It’s an invasion of my privacy,” she said, flatly.

Becky Talyn, 44, nodded. 

“It’s like if I’m pulled over in my car for no reason,” she said. “It’s an assumption of guilt.”

Mrs Talyn was herself home schooled, in Vermont and then New York state, and went on to obtain a PHD in biology. Her home-schooled brother is a professional ballet dancer, who founded Ballet Vermont. Her sister is a nurse.

And her daughter, Darwin, 13, insisted that she loves being home-schooled.

“I was offered the chance to go to school, but I feel like if I want to meet other kids I can do that,” she said, articulate and charming. “I feel free to be who I am.”

Mrs Reeves laughed. “And anyone who says, well, isn’t there a problem with socialisation? I reply – have you met my kids?”

Amy Hughson, 49, a massage therapist, home schools her two children, aged 11 and nine.

“I think they should absolutely study what happened down the road in Perris, so it never, never happens again,” she said.

“But it’s a society problem. It’s not a home schooling problem.”