Signs of Child Abuse: Lessons from the Turpin Case

April is Child Abuse Prevention month, which raises awareness of the ongoing responsibility of all adults to be active members of our children’s village. Every month, newscasts report on multiple cases of severe and long-term abuse of children. Many of us have seen images of poor living conditions and heard descriptions of children held by their parents or guardians and subjected to repeated methods of abuse.

With each news report, we may stop, shake our heads, and comment, “Someone must have seen something or known what was happening.” Neighbors are interviewed and say, “The family kept to themselves,” “We didn’t even know they had any children,” or “Now looking back on it, it did seem odd at the time.” However, in most cases, no one reported their concerns. “Most child abuse and neglect is not a one time event, but more often occurs in pattern overtime” (2011, Commonwealth of Virginia: A Guide for Mandated Reporters in Recognizing and Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect).

A Child Abuse Case Study

There has been a great deal of attention on the 2017 case of 13 abused children in California. Their condition was discovered only when one of them escaped and found help. One of the neighbors interviewed said the children were up at all hours of the night marching in front of windows. Was this type of behavior something that should have been considered abuse and reported?

Following the discovery of the children, we heard reports of their extreme malnourishment and systematic and regular episodes of abuse. The oldest child, age 29, had attended community college; however, his mother always escorted him. Despite these factors, there were no reports on record by anyone of concerns of abuse.

Warning Signs

As part of a society that values, supports, and nurtures children, we need to know the “red alerts” for child abuse and how to report suspected abuse.

Warning signs include:

  • Recurrent, unexplained injuries
  • Consistent nervousness, as though always expecting something to happen
  • Wearing clothing that doesn’t fit or that covers the child’s skin even in warm weather
  • Appearing afraid to go home
  • Appearing to shy away from others
  • Extreme anxiety
  • Withdrawal from peers and adults
  • Acting or physically appearing much younger than their age
  • Untreated illnesses and injuries
  • Often late or missing from school
  • Consistent bad hygiene
  • Playing in dangerous settings or found alone and unsupervised
  • Excessive hunger
  • Engaging in activities at late or very early hours with no adults

Source: (March 2018)

We Are Children’s Stewards

We are the stewards for our community’s future leaders. All children depend on adults for protection. It can be a tremendous trauma when a child’s caretakers fail to protect them, leaving the abused child voiceless.

This leads us to ask a question. Why aren’t responsible adults in a child’s community providing a voice for these children? The Virginia Department of Social Services reported that in 2014-15, there were 8,592 founded (proven) cases of child abuse and/or neglect in Virginia. The Virginia Coalition for Child Abuse Prevention reported in 2017, “every 80 minutes a child is abused or neglected in Virginia.”

What, then, keeps caring and responsible adults from reporting concerns or instances of child abuse? provides some insight. They state that many people may not believe their concerns are valid or may second-guess what they have seen. “This is a normal response when you observe something that makes you uncomfortable. Remember it’s a child who needs your protection. Don’t second-guess what you just saw and don’t minimize it.”

Why We Second-Guess Ourselves

  • You’re shocked and frightened by what you see or hear.
  • You doubt yourself and think you are overreacting. This is normal to feel. Maybe you are Maybe you’re not. You could be saving a child. Don’t worry about overreacting. Make a report.
  • You think, “It’s not my child so it’s none of my business; I shouldn’t judge others.” Every child is our business if it involves child abuse and neglect. Adults will happily take part in the success of every child, but we are distant when it involves protecting a child.
  • You think, “If I make a report, I won’t be able to remain anonymous.” You fear retaliation, which is a normal, valid concern. However, you can absolutely remain anonymous. If you make the report, you will be asked some information about the child and the person who you believe did something inappropriate or abusive. The more information you have (names, addresses, etc.), the better. Make the report and Child Protective Services will determine if they will follow through on the report. You do not have to give information about yourself. You have done your job.
  • You think, “Only professionals can handle this.” Anyone can observe inappropriate behavior done to a child by an adult. The person who observes the behavior should report the behavior. Everyone is responsible for reporting harm to a child. “Making a report allows professionals to assess the event and decide whether or not to open a case that can involve police intervention, additional family services and support, etc.” (, 2018, “5 Reasons People Don’t Report Child Abuse”).

What Happens to the Children

In a follow up report on ABC News, the oldest of the 13 abused children in California are over 18 and residing together. They maintain daily contact with their seven siblings placed in two foster homes through Skype. They are receiving mental health services and beginning to build their futures. Remarkably, each of the seven identifies themselves as survivors. Within months of the 17-year-old sibling who escaped and revealed extended and horrific abuse, these adults have become the support system to their younger siblings. As these survivors move forward, they display resiliency through identifying their future paths. They remain strong in their emotional support of their younger siblings.

During the month of April, please pause to consider the vulnerability of our children. Consider the need and right they have to grow strong into their future. Finally, please consider your willingness to be a steward of that future.


If you suspect or witness child abuse, you can use a quick and immediate resource in Virginia’s Hotline at 1-800-552-7096

Greater Richmond SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Awareness) website is

Additional resources are National Children’s Alliance website

Jackie Burgeson, ACSW, is a Child Development Services Trauma-Informed and Resiliency Specialist at ChildSavers. Jackie previously worked with the agency as Project Coordinator and Mental Health Consultant for the HUGS grant. Her career has focused in the areas of services to children and families through direct clinical and management positions. She earned a MSW, ACSW, and MA in Sociology. Jackie has been a reviewer for the Children’s Bureau for Discretionary grants; national Council on Accreditation reviewer; and has trained and developed curriculum for Virginia Social Services Training Institute. Jackie has more than 40 years of experience working in all aspects of child welfare, which include prevention, training, supervision, curriculum development, and treatment services. She has a commitment of service to strengthen families and opportunities for children.



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