After the rescue: what does the future hold for California's Turpin children?

Rory Carroll in Los Angeles
Neighbors drop off gifts for the Turpin children in Perris, California, on Thursday. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP

The 13 siblings are safe now, ensconced in the folds of California’s medical care, and it is their parents’ turn to be shackled.

A family that inhabited its own secluded world in a tile-roofed suburban house, a world of alleged violence, suffering and depravity, suddenly faces two very different paths.

David Turpin, 56, and his wife, Louise Turpin, 49, appeared in court this week charged with dozens of counts of torture and abuse which could leave them behind bars for the rest of their lives. The father was also charged with sexually abusing one of his daughters. Wearing dark suits, shackled with a chain around their waists and another around their ankles, both seemed dazed.

“Are they certifiably nuts?” a reporter shouted at a press conference earlier on Thursday. “I can’t answer that question,” replied the Riverside county district attorney, Michael Hestrin.

The couple’s motive for allegedly imprisoning, starving, beating and throttling their children hovers over a case so shocking it managed to distract America from the latest political convulsions in Washington. Mental illness, religious zealotry, sheer evil – social media was quick to speculate.

The parents pleaded not guilty. “What we would like the public to know is that our clients are presumed to be innocent,” said their defence attorney David Macher.

The trial should illuminate what happened, and why, in the Turpin house on Muir Wood Road in Perris, a nondescript suburb 70 miles south of Los Angeles.

The other question hovering over the case will take years, if not decades, to answer: what next for the Turpin children?

What next for 13 siblings, aged two to 29, who are currently receiving nutrients, vitamins and antibiotics in Corona regional medical center and the Riverside University Health System medical center?

Stunted and pale, many appear to have cognitive issues and nerve damage. Seven are technically adults but they appeared so frail and small police who freed them last Sunday initially thought they were minors. Some are unaware of basic concepts such as police or medicine. Recovery and integration into society could be long and fraught.

Trauma experts are divided over the siblings’ prospects.

Susan Curtiss, a University of California, Los Angeles, linguistics professor who worked closely with other abused children, said the Turpins needed unconditional love and support and to be kept together.

“They are emerging from their own horrible world to a world they know nothing about. One thing they do know is each other. That’s the only constant other than their own parents.”

Curtiss recommended a small team of carers. “The same one or two people should be there all day every day, touching them softly, a loving, gentle presence ... to lead them into society.”

The professor feared authorities would bungle treatment, as happened with Genie in an infamous case from the 1970s when squabbling scientists and carers undermined the child’s treatment and recovery.

Curtiss, who befriended Genie, feared a repeat of poorly designed tests, inadequate foster homes and bureaucratic in-fighting. “I have no confidence in any of the governmental systems. There probably will be a tug of war because this is the kind of situation that can make people famous. Many people want to be well known and publish papers ... that’s what they’re after.”

Other experts acknowledged pitfalls but were more hopeful.

Nora Baladerian, an LA-based clinical psychologist and licensed counsellor, said those responsible for the Turpins would have to choose between different treatment options.

“They may not have any idea of what normal is. They may not know that one does not normally live chained. It’s going to be a huge, long term adjustment just in daily living.”

Baladerian advised keeping the siblings together and exposing them to positive experiences such as scenic nature and beautiful music. “They have to heal from the separation of their parents and the knowledge of what their parents did to them. They need to acquire self-esteem and skills for future life. If they live in the memory of their suffering rather than hopes and dreams for the future, they won’t do so well.”

The Riverside County district attorney, Michael Hestrin, speaks during a press conference in Riverside, California, on the Turpins. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

John Fairbank, co-director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, said carers would need to carefully assess the relationships between the siblings. “Some may have served as surrogate parents, some may have bonded in critical pairings, and some may have aggressed on each other.”

He also leaned towards keeping all 13 together or near each other. “Worry, guilt, and fears may be exacerbated with the ‘not knowing’ and ‘not seeing’ their siblings. Given their reported experiences, there is little reason for these children to trust an adult who tells them their siblings are all OK.”

Fairbank, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke, said research, training and resources for trauma care had improved considerably since the Genie era. “The answer to ‘is it different now?’ is ‘yes’.”

Victims in more recent cases of extreme abuse have shown progress.

Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Lily Rose Lee (formerly known as Michelle Knight) have rebuilt lives and relationships since emerging in 2013 from the Cleveland home of their kidnapper, Ariel Castro.

The children of Robert Hale, a survivalist who adopted the name Papa Pilgrim and brutalised his family in Alaskan wilderness, are said to have done “amazingly well” since escaping their father’s tyranny a decade ago.

The Turpin siblings face a daunting challenge given an ordeal which seems ripped from the darker folklore tales of the brothers Grimm.

As an engineer at the global security company Northrop Grumman, David Turpin earned a handsome salary, $140,000, but he and his wife neglected their growing brood when they lived in Texas and are accused of doing far worse after moving to California in 2010.

Under cover of home schooling, which averted contact with outside authority, the parents allegedly physically and psychologically stunted the children.

Prosecutors said the malnourished siblings watched their parents eat apple pie, which they could not touch. They were forced to stay up at night and sleep during the day. They had not seen a doctor in four years and never saw a dentist.

They were allowed bathe just once a year and punished “for playing in water” if they washed their arms above the wrists. Punishment included beating, strangling and being chained to beds for weeks or even months at a time, leaving bedrooms reeking of urine.

“The abuse was horrific,” said Hestrin. “As a prosecutor, there are some cases that haunt you. Some deal with human depravity, and that’s what we’re dealing with here.”

The 17-year-old daughter who fled through a window last Sunday and alerted authorities planned the escape for two years. She was so emaciated she appeared to be 10 years old. A sibling who accompanied her grew frightened and turn back.

Curtiss, the linguist, said that unlike Genie, the Turpin children at least had language and literacy. With enlightened, loving care there may be a happy ending, she said. “You need a combination of a really gifted therapist with the power to make something happen.”