California social services system 'failed' 13 Turpin siblings, probe finds

ByRob McMillan ABCNews logo
Saturday, July 9, 2022
Riverside County 'failed' to help Turpin kids, report says
The social services system "failed" the 13 Turpin children who were rescued after being starved and horribly abused by their parents at a Southern California home for years, according to a new report.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- The 13 Turpin siblings, rescued in 2018 from captivity in their parents' California home, were "failed" by the social services system that was supposed to care for them and help transition them into society, according to a report issued Friday by outside investigators hired by Riverside County.

The video featured is from a previous report.

"Some of the younger Turpin children were placed with caregivers who were later charged with child abuse," the 630-page report found. "Some of the older siblings experienced periods of housing instability and food insecurity as they transitioned to independence."

The eight-month probe was commissioned in response to an investigation by ABC News as part of the Diane Sawyer 20/20 special, "Escape From A House of Horror," that aired last November, in which two of the Turpin siblings spoke out for the first time about the challenges and hardships they have faced in the years since sheriff's deputies rescued them from a life of home imprisonment.

"With respect to the Turpin siblings, we conclude there were many times over the last four years that they received the care they needed from the County," the report found. "This was not always the case, however, and all too often the social services system failed them."

The Turpin siblings were rescued in January 2018 from their home in Perris, California, after then-17-year-old Jordan Turpin executed a daring escape in the middle of the night and called 911. Authorities subsequently discovered that their parents had subjected them to brutal violence and deprived them of food, sleep, hygiene, education, and health care.

David and Louise Turpin pleaded guilty to 14 felony counts in 2019 and were sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

"In short, while there are many examples of dedicated Riverside County personnel succeeding despite the systemic obstacles in their way, there are too many other examples of falling short or even failing outright," the report found.

In the response to the report, Riverside County Supervisor Karen Spiegel said in a statement, "This is the time to act and I will support all efforts to meet the challenge."

While many of the specifics in the report were redacted due to privacy rules, the investigation outlined a number of specific instances where services failed, as well as when they succeeded. It also included a number of recommendations for reforming the problem-plagued systems that care for both adults and children in need in Riverside County.

In a statement, County Executive Officer Jeff Van Wagenen, who commissioned the investigation, said the recommendations would "guide our continuing efforts to improve outcomes in the days, weeks and months to come."

Referring to its investigation of the Riverside social welfare system more broadly, the report found that there were "many examples of dedicated Riverside County personnel succeeding despite the systemic obstacles in their way" -- but ultimately that "there are too many other examples of falling short or even failing outright."

High turnover, lack of oversight, access to benefits

Investigators were tasked with both probing the concerns raised with the Turpin case, and examining the overall social service system in Riverside County -- the tenth largest county in the nation, whose $1 billion Department of Public Social Services provides services to nearly one million people annually.

In its analysis of the various departments within the county's social services structure, the report paints a portrait of system run by staff who are plagued by "inadequate compensation, overwhelming caseloads, and insufficient support."

In the child services division, for example, high staff turnover and vacancy rates of approximately 40% have "reached a crisis point," the report said. But the entire section of the report detailing the youngest Turpin siblings' experiences in the that division was redacted, likely due to strict confidentiality laws that govern records surrounding minors.

For adult residents of Riverside County, the report found that housing is a "particular area of concern," and says that in regard to state benefits, there is "no clear, agency-wide process" for the county to connect people with services they are entitled to. The adult Turpin children did receive Supplemental Security Income, the investigation found, which was deposited into their conservatorship estates.

Notably, investigators found that none of the funds donated to the Turpin siblings after the story of their escape and rescue made worldwide headlines in 2018 were improperly spent. However, it did find that a large portion of those funds remained unspent, and the failure to do so "may have resulted in food and housing insecurity for at least some of the Turpin siblings."

Investigators questioned why the public guardian -- the court-appointed conservator responsible for aiding the adult siblings in making decisions regarding their finances, health care, and overall well-being -- did not distribute those funds, and noted that the accountings of those funds were often "filed years past the due date."

Separately, while the report mostly discussed those donations raised by the public in the wake of the siblings' rescue in 2018, investigators also questioned why the public guardian did not make an effort "until recently" to obtain a separate set of nearly $1,000,000 in donations from the public raised by the JAYC Foundation after the 20/20 report aired in November. A spokesperson for The JAYC Foundation said in a statement to ABC News Friday that for its part, the foundation "has indeed begun disbursing funds to Turpin siblings."

In its review of the public guardian's office, investigators found that "extremely high and complex caseloads, limited funding, and a lack of oversight put clients at risk of having their needs go unmet and their rights unprotected." In fact, employees in that office each handle 98-113 cases per person -- about 3.5 times the recommended standard of 30 cases.

Still, the report commended employees who "use flexibility and creativity to build care plans that aim to align with client wishes. "

The report also applauded the court-appointed legal representation provided to the Turpin children. All of the siblings were represented at some point by Jack Osborn of the firm Brown White and Osborn, which investigators found "vigorously and effectively advocated" for them.

But, the records showed "heated conflicts" among the parties involved in the cases, including appointed counsel, The Riverside County District Attorney's office, and the Public Guardian.

It found that the infighting "prolonged acrimony and may have interfered with the development of trusting and confidential attorney-client relationships, especially given the Turpins' vulnerability and lack of experience with the legal system."

Recommendations for improvement

Investigators shared a lengthy list of recommendations for the county to consider in order to improve programs for children in foster care and vulnerable adults in their community. The recommendations will likely require a substantial cost to implement, though no concrete numbers were included in the report.

To improve workplace performance, investigators recommended that the county alleviate the stress placed on staff and social workers by decreasing the high workload, increasing training, and seeking to create an overall better system to support county social workers. Investigators further recommended that, when confronted with "critical" incidents, the county use those events as "system-wide" learning opportunities and that they conduct policy reviews to evaluate these situations.

To address concerns about the county's foster care system, investigators recommended increasing the number of "highly effective" foster families within the community and increasing oversight of these homes in order to ensure an adequate quality of care Such oversight should be led by an official appointed to investigate complaints regarding mismanagement within the system, the report said.

A reduction in the number of critical incidents, increased stability for the children placed in homes, and fewer maltreatment reports for children in care would be the benchmark of the program's effectiveness, investigators wrote. They said the county must improve the quality of care provided by the families to foster children, and that there should be increased support and communication with the children to ensure their voices are heard in the process.

Investigators also said increased support is needed for public guardians and social workers who serve the vulnerable adults in the system. A reduction of caseloads, increased training and oversight, and a significant boost in salary may help ameliorate staffing shortages, the report suggested.

The report also recommended that the county set a cap for how many cases an attorney handles, and improve communication between the various agencies and the court, while also ensuring clients have the opportunity to be heard within the system.

A representative for Riverside County said in a statement that the county is "committed to finding innovative solutions and implementing recommendations by Larson LLP."

The report is due to be presented the county's Board of Supervisors during public session on Tuesday.