David and Louise Turpin shackled their 13 children and starved them in filthy conditions for years, and nobody knew it until Sunday. They hid in “plain sight,” we’re told. Neighbors in Perris, California, informed The Los Angeles Times that the family seemed peculiar. According to some, they only emerged at night. Another said he could see the children circling for hours in place in front of a window. The Turpin house looked like other houses, little boxes all made of ticky-tacky, but it was different in this one essential way—and the neighborhood turned away. Maybe the circling was a punishment. Maybe it was a sign, an SOS. It was strange enough to startle but not strange enough for anyone to cross the suburban abyss.
The Turpins are shocking, but they are not without precedent. All families, of course, can mask horror underneath cul-de-sac banality. But the Turpins’ horror was likely kept hidden by a very specific tool. We know now that the parents homeschooled their children under the auspices of the Sandcastle Day School, which is simply the name they used when they filed a private school affidavit with the state of California. Understanding how the Turpins got away with what they did for so long is also partly a matter of understanding homeschooling law, and of the problems that attend homeschooling deregulation. You can hide almost anything when nobody is watching.
Despite California’s reputation as a liberal nanny-state, its homeschooling regulations are among the loosest in the country. Parents don’t need a teaching credential to homeschool. They aren’t required to furnish any proof of academic progress, and while homeschooling families can file a Private School Affidavit, the affidavit triggers no oversight. “In California, almost anyone can open a private school by filing an affidavit with the state,” The New York Times explained. “California is one of 14 states that only ask parents to register to create a home school, and in 11 other states, including Texas, parents are not required to submit any documentation at all.”
The Turpins, then, answered to no one, and thus shielded their abuse from anyone in a position to report it to the authorities. At a press conference on Thursday, the Riverside County district attorney’s office stated that the children suffered from muscle wasting and brain damage linked to starvation; a 29-year-old daughter weighs 82 pounds. They were chained and padlocked to beds and chairs and were not always released to go to the bathroom. They showered once a year. David Turpin has additionally been charged with at least one count of a lewd act upon a child by force or duress.
This was horrific, sustained abuse, which the family tucked away with apparent ease. But blame can’t be laid solely at the feet of California: Until 2010, the Turpins lived in Texas, cited by the Times as an example of uniquely lax regulation. The problem is bigger than California, bigger than Texas, bigger than the Turpins themselves.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, around 3 percent of the school-age population learns at home. Regulations vary from state to state. In Virginia, for example, parents can homeschool under either an academic or religious exemption from school attendance; in the latter case, parents must simply state a bona fide religious opposition to public education, after which they are completely and permanently exempt from government oversight. Illinois, meanwhile, says homeschooling parents must meet mandatory attendance rules—but does not require any sort of testing to see if homeschooled children are keeping pace with their peers in public schools. That’s the norm, and not the exception, for testing regulations. ProPublica reported in 2015 that only ten states require homeschooling parents to have at least a high school diploma, and only two conduct background checks on parents.
Advocates worry that this state of deregulation actually assists abusive parents. “We’ve assembled a database of hundreds of cases of undocumented abuse and neglect of homeschooled children,” said Chelsea McCracken, a senior analyst for the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. The non-profit, founded in 2013 by a group of homeschool graduates, doesn’t oppose the right to homeschool but does back sensible oversight. “Some of the themes we see emerging from this database have informed our policy recommendations because we tend to see the same kinds of children falling through the cracks in the same kinds of ways, over and over again,” she explained.
There are few ways to track cases of abuse and even death connected to homeschooling families in the United States. Because deregulation is the norm, it’s nearly impossible to identify normative academic outcomes or document the prevalence of abuse. It is possible, however, to track abuse cases through news reports, and to identify contributing factors in those specific incidents. McCracken says she spends an average of five to ten hours a week going through tips and searches of news reports on top of a full-time job elsewhere, and adds that there was easily 20 hours of work available weekly if CRHE had the resources to do it.
But the very concept of government oversight is often controversial within the homeschooling community. In California alone, groups like the California Homeschool Network have opposed bills to require mandatory kindergarten and successfully lobbied for an exemption from the state’s new vaccination law. The Homeschool Legal Defense Association, a conservative group based in Purcellville, Virginia, has long backed the Parental Rights Amendment, which would enshrine the right to homeschool in the U.S. Constitution.
When abuse cases linked to homeschooling do make the news, reform efforts typically stall shortly thereafter. After the body of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas was discovered in her mother’s freezer in Florida, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Department and Manatee County School Board sent draft legislation to Rep. Greg Steube, the family’s Republican state representative. That language would have required a semesterly check-in visit from a local public school teacher, an attempt to address the fact that Thomas’s mother had avoided filing a required annual progress report by falsely telling state officials that the girl no longer lived in the state. Steube never introduced the legislation—partly in response to pressure from local homeschooling advocates, who insisted that Thomas’s case did not necessitate further oversight.
CRHE’s database lists 138 confirmed abuse-related fatalities in homeschooling families from 1986 to the present. But homeschooling remains loosely regulated. The cases “oftentimes create a short-term effort to increase regulation in the state where it happens, but rarely does this result in increased regulation because of the influence of home-school advocacy groups,” Rob Kunzman, director of the International Center for Home Education Research at Indiana University, told The Associated Press in 2015.
Mike Smith, the president of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, told me that his organization is “satisfied” with California law. “People that want to homeschool have to file an affidavit every year. In that affidavit, they have to indicate they’re going to provide instruction in the courses that are commonly taught in public schools—they’ll teach in English in the daytime, etcetera,” he said. “So that, in our opinion, is sufficient to protect the state’s interest to protect education. Especially in light of the fact that homeschoolers do so well on standardized achievement tests.”
As evidence of its standardized achievement test claim, HSLDA furnished me with two articles: a 1998 survey of the scholastic and demographic characteristics of homeschoolers, published in Education Policy Analysis Archives, and a 2017 Journal of School Choice article by Brian Ray, the founder of the National Home Education Research Institute. Ray concluded that 11 of 14 available peer-reviewed studies revealed that homeschooling had “a definite positive effect” on academic outcomes, and the EPAA survey found that a group of 20,760 homeschoolers reported “exceptionally high” results on Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) or the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP).
However, the EPAA survey only examined one group of homeschoolers that voluntarily agreed to take standardized tests. In any case, 20-year-old data tells us little about the contemporary state of homeschooling. Ray’s review may be sound, but there is evidence that he himself may not be a reliable source. According to NHERI’s most recent form 990, Ray is its only paid employee. Also, its output is universally favorable to homeschooling. Under a heading called “About Homeschooling,” its website lists HSLDA and other conservative, pro-homeschooling sources like The Old Schoolhouse, Homeschooling Today, and The Teaching Home. Even so, the Ray piece provided by HSLDA recommends that “existing literature be enhanced by well-controlled non-experimental designs to examine adults who were homeschooled.” That’s impossible as long as most American homeschoolers aren’t required to take standardized tests or otherwise furnish consistent proof of academic progress.
It’s similarly difficult to address abuse within the homeschooling movement, but HSLDA dismissed concerns. Smith said, “In my history of doing this in California for 30 years, I’ve never heard anything like this—just because this family was a homeschooled family doesn’t mean that all the other families in California who are legally filing their private school affidavit, being responsible for teaching their children, should have to be regulated because of this.”
McCracken, meanwhile, says her organization has confirmed 25 cases of child abuse connected to homeschooling families in California since 1996. That figure includes 12 fatalities and several incidents of imprisonment and torture, similar to the Turpin case. There could be more: McCracken says she has a database of hundreds of cases nationally that she is still working to confirm.
Though it’s too early to tell if the Turpin case will inspire another round of reform efforts, there may be some support for it at the state level. “We are sickened by this tragedy and relieved the children are now safe and authorities are investigating,” the California Department of Education said in a statement. “Private schools are required to register with the state to record their students’ exemption from compulsory attendance at public schools. Under current California law, the CDE does not approve, monitor, inspect, or oversee private schools, but we will gladly work to make changes in the law that would prevent this type of tragedy from occurring in the future.”
State Senator Richard Roth, who represents the family’s district in the state legislature, told me that it’s “premature” to discuss specific solutions until further details about the case emerge, and says he wants to be sure that existing laws were followed before considering reform measures. “You know, one of the things that public schools do is they put eyeballs on children,” he added. “Teachers and principals and teachers aides are able to determine whether or not there is an issue that needs further investigation. We don’t have that in the homeschool setting.”
No law will entirely prevent abuse. But laws can reduce harm. When lawmakers assemble the facts—about the Turpins, about the law—they must confront what those facts reveal. The Turpin parents are not the first criminals of their kind. The government should at least try to make them the last.