HEALTH SENTINEL: Is our “mind-your-own-business” culture to blame for atrocities?
“If you see something, say something.”
While these six words are aimed at heightening our awareness of suspicious activity in airports and other public places, in the aftermath of recent high-profile child abuse cases, they should take on new meaning for all of us.
I saw the slogan on an airport sign not long ago, but I was too busy collecting my belongings from the security conveyer belt, finding my gate and getting a cup of coffee to think on it more than a second or two. Like most around me that morning, I waited for my flight with my head down, checking email and reading the news on my phone.
We’re all, more or less, in our own world these days, going about our everyday lives with a you-stay-out-of-my-business-and-I’ll stay-out-of-yours mentality.
That mentality, in part, is a factor that prevented discovery of years of alleged abuse of the 13 children of David and Louise Turpin of Perris, Calif. After one of the children escaped and called 911, police found a house of horrors. The couple was arrested and charged with 12 counts of torture, seven counts of abuse of a dependent adult, six counts of child abuse or neglect, and 12 counts of false imprisonment. David Turpin was also charged with a lewd act on a child by force or fear of duress, according to the Riverside County District Attorney’s office.
Current and former neighbors and a few relatives of the Turpins have now come forward to tell law enforcement and a variety of media outlets about past suspicions. On rare occasions when the children, ages 2 to 29, were seen in public, neighbors said they noticed they appeared malnourished and pale. At least one former neighbor reported seeing some of the children digging through the trash for food. Another found it odd that at night the children were observed marching in a circle in the house.
Kimberly Mulligan lives across the street from the Turpin home. She and her son tried to talk to three of the children while they helped their father decorate the Turpin’s front yard for Christmas two years ago. When spoken to, the children froze and seemed “absolutely terrified,” Mulligan told the Los Angeles Times.
Another failure to speak up for protection of children was evident in comments from many of the 156 women who spoke during the recent sentencing hearing of Dr. Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics sports medicine doctor. He was convicted of child pornography and multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct after molesting female athletes under the guise of providing medical treatment.
Compounding the women’s physical and emotional pain was the failure of the university and USA Gymnastics officials and, in some cases, the female athletes’ own parents, to believe the girls’ reports or to take action against Nassar.
Dee Szyndrowski, chief executive officer of SCAN in Fort Wayne, a nonprofit which provides child abuse and neglect prevention programs and services in 19 Indiana counties, sees the consequences of unreported abuse or neglect.
“I think sometimes we second guess our gut. We think, ‘That just doesn’t seem right,'” but it ends with that thought. “We wonder, ‘Who do we call? How do we check that out?’
“There’s no harm in calling (the state of Indiana’s) Child Protective Services,” Szyndrowski said, acknowledging, “We have this stigma of what CPS is really about.”
People assume children will be removed from the home, but that is not the first thing that happens unless obvious signs of abuse are present. “CPS is a resource for families,” she said. If utilities have been turned off or no food is in the house, CPS’ goal is to get the family connected to appropriate agencies for help.
Protecting our children also requires parents be in tune with what is going on in their child’s life, Szyndrowski said. Many parents are working hard just to make ends meet, to pay for quality child care and to put food on the table. Others have demanding careers and are juggling kids from activity to activity and simultaneously answering email, cooking dinner and asking kids about homework.
“I think that’s how we miss cues,” Szyndrowski said. “As we move really, really fast, we’re not paying attention to life around us.”
It’s imperative that we slow down, listen to our children, take time to know our neighbors, to talk to the kids we encounter on a walk around the block or at the grocery. Pay attention to that gut feeling. If concerns continue, make a call. Even if an investigation is done and concerns prove unfounded, you will sleep better at night — far better than the neighbors or relatives of the Turpin children or those in authority who failed to thoroughly investigate Nassar.
Jennifer L. Boen is a freelance writer in Fort Wayne who writes frequently about health and medicine. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.