One expert thinks that these diaries-turned-evidence could have been what kept the siblings sane.
A child psychiatrist tells AP that the 13 malnourished children found in captivity in California haven’t experienced the milestones that most kids need in order to be successful. He says they face years of rehabilitation to overcome the trauma they’ve experienced.
PERRIS, Calif. — The children weren’t allowed to eat. They weren’t allowed to bathe.
They couldn’t play with toys that were kept in the closet, still packaged. They couldn’t go outside. They couldn’t escape.
Their depraved parents allowed them to do only one thing, prosecutors said.
They could write.
On Sunday, Riverside County law enforcement discovered 13 siblings — ages 2 to 29 — imprisoned in the an unassuming four-bedroom, three-bathroom suburban home. A teenage captive had escaped through a window and called for help, revealing a crime that has horrified and captivated the nation.
The children’s parents, David and Louise Turpin, now face life in prison for multiple counts of torture, child abuse and false imprisonment that lasted for years. While describing the case Thursday, prosecutors revealed the Turpin children’s only freedom was writing in journals.
Authorities have recovered hundreds of them.
Riverside County law enforcement officials now are combing through those journals. District Attorney Mike Hestrin said he believes they will be very significant to the coming court case and will provide “strong evidence of what occurred in that home.”
The diaries also have sparked the interest of academics who research trauma and language. Writing in the journals was, quite possibly, what allowed the children to survive a life of fear, hunger and torture, said James Pennebaker, a renowned expert on using writing to heal from traumatic experiences.
“There is a good chance that being able to write may have kept them sane,” Pennebaker said. “In an interesting way, this may have helped them come to terms with the bizarre world they lived in.”
Pennebaker, a University of Texas-Austin psychology professor who has been following the Perris case from afar, described the child torture as the “most horrific story imaginable.” In an interview Friday, he wondered aloud why the Turpins would have allowed their children to chronicle their captivity and still kept the journals in the house, basically stockpiling evidence of their crimes.
But the unlikely existence of these journals creates a unique research tool that may allow academics to design therapies to help victims of torture, maltreatment and prolonged captivity, Pennbaker said.
The children’s stunted language skills might make the journals hard to decipher, he said. But this challenge also would be valuable in the study of communications barriers and the evolution of language.
From a research perspective, the only writings that could even loosely compare to the children’s journals would come from prison inmates or the famous diary of Anne Frank, a Jewish teenager who chronicled her life as she hid from the Nazis during World War II, Pennebaker said.
“Anne Frank lived in an insane world, but her family life was remarkably normal,” Pennebaker said. “This is the exact opposite.”
Research into the journals likely will have to wait until the Turpins’ criminal case is resolved, and only if the writings are released to academics, Pennebaker said.
In the meantime, the journals will also have tremendous value for the criminal investigation, even though they may not be admissable as evidence in a courtroom, said Laurie Levenson, a criminal law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Investigators who are attempting to interview the children, a delicate process, could start with the journals, asking about entries that imply abuse, Levenson said. Additionally, if either of the parents were to testify in their own defense, prosecutors could use the journals to cross-examine them.
And finally, if any of the children testify, they could use the journals to refresh their memory on witness stand, much the way a police officer reviews a report before testifying about an old crime, she said.
“You can’t cross examine a journal, you have to cross examine the children, but they are a still a good starting point,” Levenson said. “And frankly, they may be enough to persuade a defendant that they don’t want to go through a long trial here.”
The Turpins are accused of starving their children to the point of dramatically stunting their growth, beating them and strangling them. Sometimes they were chained for months at a time as punishment, Hestrin said.
California criminal charges stemmed from crimes dating to 2010, he said. But authorities believe the children’s abuse began in Texas.
The Turpin family had lived in Fort Worth and Rio Vista, Texas, before moving to Murrieta, Calif. They moved into their Perris home, about 60 miles southeast of Los Angeles, in August 2014.
“I will tell you as a prosecutor, there are cases that stick with you. They haunt you,” Hestrin said. “Sometimes in this business we are faced with human depravity. That is what we are looking at here.”
David and Louise Turpin pleaded not guilty to charges during a brief hearing Thursday. Their lawyers declined to comment as they left courtroom, saying they were unwilling or not yet ready to discuss the case publicly.