01:18 - Source: CNN
Neighbor: Kids froze when I spoke to them

Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

CNN —  

What responsibility does society bear for the Turpins?

By many accounts, the family at the center of the week’s grimmest and most tragically fascinating story – 13 children, ages 2 to 29, found starving and shackled in their parents’ California home – was a happy one. They dressed alike when they went out. They took family trips to Disneyland. Parents David and Louise Turpin were, according to David’s mother, Betty, “very protective” and “highly respectable.”

Whatever the neighbors might have suspected, apparently they did nothing.

One told reporters that the family never seemed to come outside; another said she didn’t even know there were kids in the house. One recounted seeing children in the yard. They seemed “scared to death,” she said. “You could tell they were terrified.” And what did anyone do about it?

Nothing to see here, folks. Right?

It’s funny how quick we are to judge other people’s parenting – moms who breast-feed too long are “overindulgent”; dads who are too involved in their kids’ sports careers are putting the youths’ lives in jeopardy out of narcissism and personal gain. Co-sleeping, homeschooling, kids who are allowed/not allowed to dress themselves or refuse to eat anything but grilled cheese – everyone’s got an opinion about what makes the next parent a bad one.

So how is it possible that 13 children were found, some padlocked to their beds, deprived of food and water, apparent prisoners in a foul-smelling house, in a neighborhood where the homes appear no more than a few feet from one another? In a neighborhood where most other children frequented the local playground? As one report put it, “The Turpins stood out for never being seen.” Which is certainly not nothing.

You’ve got to wonder: Where are the parent police now?

It’s a problem of all talk, no action, for sure. But it’s also one of demographics. There was a time, not so long ago, when the American suburbs were seen as places where community ruled: block parties, neighborhood watch, kids playing in the cul-de-sacs. Now many suburbs are taking on the qualities previously associated with urban centers: places where people do their own thing, are less involved in one another’s lives, and are less likely to know their neighbors’ names, never mind be invited inside their house.

Economist Joe Cortright, who analyzed the data trends for CityLab, noted that “in the 1970s, nearly 30 percent of Americans reported spending time with their neighbors at least twice weekly; fewer than a quarter reported no interactions with neighbors. Over the past three decades, the number of interactions has trended downward. Today, nearly a third report no interactions with neighbors and only about 20 percent say they spend time regularly with neighbors.”

Data from the most recent General Social Survey, an ongoing study that’s tracked changes in society since the 1970s, shows that Americans have never been less likely to be friends with their neighbors, and that residents of suburbs showed the lowest level of neighborliness of any group studied, which included those in urban and rural areas.

Could it be possible that none of the Turpins’ neighbors had any idea that something was terribly wrong in that house? Or did they suspect something was off but chose to mind their own business, or focus on their own problems? The mom who recalled seeing the scared kids in the yard explained her inaction this way: “I think what I thought was a little bit of that California ‘I don’t want to judge you,’ ” she went on to say. ” ‘I may not raise my kids that way.’ ”

In some news reports on the bizarre story, the parents of David Turpin have defended the couple and asserted they had so many children because “God called on them.” We can’t know what, if any, religious convictions figured into the Turpins’ alleged treatment of their kids, but child abuse under the guise of religion is not unusual and can include forced marriages, genital mutilation, physical abuse, restricted diets and conversion therapy.

Some so-called anti-vaxxers even cite religion among their reasons for not immunizing their children. Given the allegations, did the Turpins – whose family members said their children had “very strict homeschooling,” and would memorize long passages in the Bible – act out of cruelty? Or were they misguidedly adhering to a faith that told them to literally keep their children on a tight rein?

In the eyes of the law, it will likely not matter. David and Louise Turpin have both been arrested and charged with multiple counts of child endangerment and torture. But in the eyes of those of us looking to understand, perhaps it does.

At the very least, the Turpins may have struggled with mental impairment; we’ll learn more as details emerge. Whatever their own issues, there is another we should confront – one that may have prevented this apparently long-term disaster: As a society, we may be keeping to ourselves a little too much, judging others – but from an ineffectual distance.

What’s the fix? For starters, a return to neighborliness might help. And I’m not just talking about holding off until after 8 a.m. to use your leaf blower. Be considerate, be present, attentive to things that seem amiss. Say hello – connect – and ask how they are. Begin this today. It is, at its most basic, recommitting to the golden rule: Do to others what you want them to do to you.

You may not save the world. But giving a little bit of a damn – it’s a start.