David and Louise Turpin beat, choked, starved and shackled their own children, year after year, hidden in the plain view of their own community. The children will suffer permanent physical and cognitive damage, some of whom weigh half of what they should, having been taunted with food as punishment, punishment they would be given no matter what they did.
What’s the worst part? This will happen again and again, to children around the county, because while we will watch these cases like voyeurs, we will do nothing to stop it. Child abuse and neglect in the United States is everywhere, and it will continue. Why? Our current system tries to prevent mistreatment by waiting for it to happen, punishing the parents and hoping other abusers will take note, and waiting for the next case. Children remain invisible until they are harmed and become visible to the state. That is why we don’t find it insane to talk openly about how citizens can detect if people in their community are torturing their children, when it might be saner to ask why someone who tortures a child has kids at all.
The Turpin case should remind us of this simple fact: Once the abuse happens we have failed. There is no way to undo that harm, for the kids, and for the community that will absorb its impacts.
This after-the-fact approach to child protection begins at the source of child-parent relations, with a parent-centered family planning model that treats the act of having and raising kids as a hidden, personal, and private matter left to the parents, irrespective of the impact on the children and the community. The Turpins lived that model, one of using children for self-gratification, and even had plans to use their massive family to launch their own reality show like the Duggar family. The Turpins, like many massive families that have kids out of questionable motives (including religious ones), love their kids the way a factory owner loves its products – for the benefits they bring. For these dysfunctional families, family planning is all about the parents, not the child or the impact of the family on the community.
The good news is that many are starting to question that model, and focus more on preventing harm than reacting to it. Here’s how:
Courts around the country have at times issued court orders preventing some parents from having more kids. These orders have often been upheld, against challenge, as constitutional and reasonable limits on the right to have children. These brave courts are pushing a norm change that would move us from the old parent-centered and property family planning model to a child-first model focused on assuring children a minimum level of well-being at birth, and the community all the benefits that assurance would bring. This isn’t requiring parents to have a license to have kids – but it is thinking ahead. What’s a good analogy for what these courts are doing? Imagine the norm of free speech had no limits – if speaking freely included the right to incite riots, use subliminal advertising, create and display child pornography. Court are beginning to build nuance and responsibility into the right to have children where, unlike free speech norms and thanks to parents like the Turpins, it is conspicuously absent.
These courts are establishing this simple principle: Children should not be born into abusive and neglectful situations. Until we can say that, as our shared belief, we will maintain a system that does not value children and the community, but focuses myopically and senselessly on the parents and their exclusive rights of property and control. We will maintain a right to harm others. People do not like giving up their right to control others, but until we can change family planning norms, cases like the Turpins will continue.
Changing family planning norms, from one where parents ignore the impact they have on others to one based on shared values, will improve the world in many ways beyond preventing child abuse. Moving towards smaller and sustainable families, because parents have begun to act out of concern for the environment their children will inherit and need, is the most effective way to mitigate climate change and create the smaller and more resilient populace required for people to thrive in a more challenging future. It is also a model built around this simple fact: The fewer children parents have, the more time, resources, and energy they can invest in their child, demonstrating their love through action. And that increased investment creates real outcomes.
Moving to a child-first model also helps women around the world, because the old parent-centered model – applied in the power dynamic of tyrannical patriarchy – has simply become a husband and male-centered model where women are seen as perpetual mothers. Changing family planning models also carries the promise of revering the massive gap between rich and poor by focusing on its genesis, and using cooperative family planning to peg the commonly accepted principle that everyone deserves equal opportunities in life to the less acceptable process of serious resource reallocation.
It’s no surprise that this change in norms is facing reactionary pushback. Many, including those that see themselves as progressive, will not want to cede their parental control and will oppose moves like legislation that would authorize courts to prevent child abusers like the Turpins from having more kids. They will think child-centered planning will negatively impact underprivileged families, when in fact establishing and implementing a child’s right to a fair start in life provides the moral basis for cooperative resource reallocation in a way that could eliminate poverty. Moreover, model court orders could be limited to the most egregious cases of abuse and neglect only, exclude any form of coercion including jail time and fines (instead using a form of nudge theory), but instead rely on their expressive force and any appropriate non-coercive interventions, like the appointment of guardians ad litem for future children. These orders could also be designed to account for the principles of affirmative action, and structural inequities of race, class, gender, national origin, etc.
More commonly, right wing extremists and climate change deniers will resist the change the way they resist all encroachments on that which they few as their private property. Many of them are already defending the child-as property systems that enabled the Turpins.
But failure to take action, through the state, is a reinforcement of parent-centered thinking, and not an option for those who really want to protect children. How can you act to further this change in family planning norms that will prevent child abuse, improve our environment, and target the massive gap between rich and poor? First, you can use your voice, speak out, and break the taboo: Say openly that the right to have kids comes with responsibilities, to the children, the community and the environment. Second, you can promote and help pass legislation that would authorize courts to prevent abusers like the Turpins from having more kids, and move us towards child-first family planning by changing our child welfare system from being reactive to being proactive. Why take public action? Many progressives think that by going child-free, or having one well-cared for child, they have done their part. But the worst possible result would be for the most thoughtful and caring people, the best parents, to exit the process entirely and reinforce the old model of family planning, the model of isolated decision-making and walled off children.
Third, you can act locally and urge your community to adopt family planning measures, and support for smaller and sustainable families, as part of their climate action plans. Fourth, you can advocate for a federal tax system that proactively promotes equitable family planning rather than reactively offering measly and pronatal child tax credits that ignore every child’s right to a fair start in life.
Let’s not gawk at the story of the Turpins. Let’s take action to prevent cases like this from happening again, by starting at the source and reforming our family planning systems. We will not be valuing and protecting the most vulnerable among us – children, animals, and the environment, until we do.