When the parents of David Turpin learned that he and his wife Louise had been allegedly torturing their 13 children, they were “surprised and shocked,” because their son and daughter-in-law were “a good Christian family.” 


We hear it time and time again. People express shock and disgust that parents who appear to be religious have been abusing their children.

In the horrific case of the Turpin family, police found the 13 children, ages 2 to 29, shackled to furniture, severely malnourished and pale, living in filth, and injured. Many appear to have cognitive issues and nerve damage, a result of abuse. The children were so thin, police drastically miscalculated their ages; they thought a 17-year-old girl was only 10.

According to the children’s grandparents, James and Betty Turpin who live in West Virginia, David and Louise had so many children because “God called on them” to do so. James and Betty thought that the children had appeared thin and were aware that they had been given “very strict homeschooling,” Also, the grandparents said the children had been trying to memorize long passages of the Bible. Some even had been trying to memorize it in its entirety.

The grandparents hadn’t seen the home-schooled children in 4 or 5 years. But based on what they knew and had observed, did nothing stand out as a red flag? Were they not at all concerned about the way the parents were raising their children? Or were they satisfied just knowing that the children were being raised in the Christian faith?

Neighbors interviewed in the suburban neighborhood of Perris, California, wondered why they rarely saw the children. Some admitted that a few looked malnourished and pale. When one neighbor saw the children putting up a nativity scene, she witnessed bizarre behavior: The children “froze [as] if by doing so they could become invisible.” And yet no one put in a call to police or CPS?

We need to reconsider our roles as neighbors, relatives, and community members when it comes to protecting children who are not our own offspring—even if the parents appear to be religious.

Of course, stepping into someone else’s private space to report them to authorities is not easy. (Although keep in mind you don’t have to prove abuse to make such a call.) Coming to the aid of a child who is in distress also is unnerving. I will never forget when I was in line at the post office and I had to beg a woman to pick up her baby who had been screaming for 15 minutes, his face beet red. I was verbally attacked by a stranger who thought what I had done was unconscionable. That was not fun, but at least, for that moment, things were better for the baby because the mother did pick up the baby and the crying ceased.

I’ve heard all the excuses. “It’s not our place to interfere with another parent’s choice.” “You could cause even more trouble for the child.” “The parent knows what she’s doing.” But let’s be honest. Most people don’t want to assume the role of protector for the simple reason that it’s uncomfortable, embarrassing, and a little scary.

The time has come for us to realize it’s not about us. Maybe if the Turpins’ relatives or neighbors had taken their roles as child protectors more seriously, those children would not have endured what they did.

David and Louise Turpin have been charged with dozens of counts of torture and abuse. The father was also charged with sexually abusing one of his daughters.

Incidentally, you may wonder just how the children were saved. It turns out the 17-year-old girl who police thought was so much younger had escaped through a window and called 911 form a deactivated a cell phone.

Her siblings owe their sister their lives. But it shouldn’t have been that way. We shouldn’t have to rely on children to save themselves. That’s our job.

Janet Heimlich is an award-winning journalist and author of the book, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child MaltreatmentShe founded and sits on the board of the Child-Friendly Faith Project.

Do you know of a religious organization that isn’t taking child abuse or neglect seriously? Or is your place of worship doing great things for children? Please let us know your questions, concerns, and ideas by emailing us at info@childfriendlyfaith.org.

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Janet Heimlich is an award-winning journalist and the author of "Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment," the first book to fully examine the issue of child abuse and neglect enabled by religious belief. In 2012, Janet founded the Child-Friendly Faith Project whose mission is to share knowledge and build community around the issue of religious child maltreatment (RCM) and advocate for and empower those whose lives are impacted by RCM. She also sits on the board of directors of Foundation Beyond Belief and co-hosts the podcast, "Parenting Beyond Belief." Prior to becoming a child advocate, Janet was a freelance reporter for National Public Radio, work for which she won numerous journalism awards; she has also written nonfiction articles for such publications as Texas Monthly and the Texas Observer.


  1. kf
    September 19, 2019

    I blame the neighbors, the grandparents, the mailman. Hell anyone who knew them and could tell something was amiss. Those poor kids. Especially the one neighbor who said he saw them marching all night long???? You didn’t think to yourself that might be a punishment? Horrible!

  2. carol delaney
    January 23, 2018

    Religion is the problem – this is a patriarchal religion begun on the foundation of Abraham, a father who was Willing to sacrifice his child because god asked him…then there is God who sacrificed his only “begotten” son….. Mary is a vessel, she is not understood as the co-creator [ie no one knew of genetics],ie: men created god in their image rather than the reverse cd

  3. katy
    January 22, 2018

    He sexually abused ONE of his daughters?!?! Who are they kidding??

  4. Brien Doyle
    January 21, 2018

    ESPECIALLY if the parents appear to be religious.
    If only because of the lies from religions – that in itself is child abuse……

  5. Larry E Farr
    January 17, 2018

    An excellent source to study Christianity and child abuse is Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book, “The Sins of Scripture”, pages 143-192, “The Bible and Children” which includes on page 160, “So physical abuse was part of the story of the Christian West. God approved it … church administered it, God required it … God as a punishing judge ready to discipline deserving sinners … It is a portrait of God that must now be lifted into full consciousness so that it can be banished along with those texts from the ‘Word of God’ that have been used to justify abusive behavior for far too long.”

  6. January 17, 2018

    Brainwashing children to believe there is an eye in the sky that is watching and judging them 24/7 sets up the conditions to create bipolar symptoms: over-control, criticism, and a hostile relationship.

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