The Reluctant Samaritan

No doubt that by now you have heard the reports about the stunning case of child neglect and abuse that came to light when one of thirteen children held captive in her own home was able to escape and notify authorities. The site of this indescribable ordeal was, perhaps contrary to expectations, a nondescript residence in a middle-class Southern California neighborhood. The perpetrators were no strangers but the children’s own parents who, according to a neighbor, seemed “just very normal“:

“‘They seemed like very nice people,’ [the neighbor] said. ‘They spoke often and fondly of their children.'”

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that those appearances were deceiving—the parents have been charged with 12 counts of torture, seven counts of abuse of a dependent adult, six counts of child abuse and 12 counts of false imprisonment. The district attorney on the case appealed for witnesses to come forward: “Someone must have seen something, someone must have noticed something.” 

It seems at least conceivable that someone could have noticed. The homes in the neighborhood were built close together and the children were seen outside from time to time. But if anyone saw something, they didn’t do enough about it. How can something like this happen under our noses without anyone noticing or taking action? Such sustained ignorance and inaction in the face of such great evil seems inconceivable. And so in response to what appears at first blush to be an egregious failing by friends, family and neighbors, calls for stricter mandatory reporting laws or mandatory wellness visits are making the rounds.

But is it really that inconceivable that nobody noticed or did anything? What does child abuse sound or look like? I mean, does evil leave blood-soaked footprints in its wake? Smell like sulfur? Decay everything it touches? Maybe sometimes, but more often than not evil doers hardly announce themselves and their deeds. With little to go by, can we really blame anyone for not taking action after maybe noticing something a little, well, “off”?

It’s hard to say; for my part I’m going to refrain from armchair quarterbacking the neighbors because in my experience it’s hard to do the right thing when confronted by uncomfortable situations even when the correct course of action is crystal clear; when it’s not obvious that something nefarious is going on, I can only imagine that the reluctance to take action is even stronger. Let me illustrate with three examples.

Twenty years ago I was working the night shift at a grocery store in American Fork. I finished early at around 3:00 a.m. and jumped in my truck to drive home to Provo. It had started to snow in the night and the freeway hadn’t been plowed yet. As I proceeded south in what was then an area devoid of development, a semi-truck heading north drove into the median—a ditch back then—and tipped over and slid along the left southbound lane. I was in the right lane and carefully applied the brakes. We stopped just a few feet from each other. I was the first person on the scene. A feeling of dreadful responsibility washed over me. The driver was hanging unresponsive in his seat belt with the truck resting on the driver’s side. I thought he was dead. I didn’t have a mobile phone at the time and no one else was around. I didn’t know what to do—kick the windshield in? Climb up and go in on the passenger’s side? I decided to try the windshield and started kicking. The noise woke the driver up. A wave of relief swept over me—he wasn’t dead after all! He had fallen asleep at the wheel and the crash was so, well, smooth that he had woken up. A minute later another driver arrived and soon thereafter the highway patrol. All’s well that ends well, but that initial feeling of paralysis has stuck with me these many years.

A few years later I was living right downtown in a small town, and my building’s parking lot was located several blocks away in a quiet neighborhood. One morning I parked my Jeep, got out and heard a low moaning. I looked around and didn’t see anything. The moaning continued. There was a hedge around the parking lot that blocked my view, so I walked around and saw a man underneath a pile of rubble. A building was being demolished, and something had obviously gone very wrong. I looked around. There was no else—just me and a man bleeding profusely from his head and leg. That now familiar feeling of paralysis returned, exacerbated by the fact that this time, the guy really was hurt. Fortunately, it turned out that a co-worker had gone to his truck to get a first aid kit and came around the corner moments later. He asked me to call the ambulance, which I happily did, and then I helped him apply first aid. All’s well that ends well, but that visceral feeling of being cast in wet concrete remains with me to this day.

In the third and most recent experience, I was the victim. I was now living in a city of almost 2 million people. I was crossing one of the city’s busiest streets on a green light over a crosswalk just a couple of blocks from home. About halfway across the street, a car turning came within inches of mowing me down. I’m no saint when scofflaws threaten life and limb, and so I had one of these moments.  The driver and his friend didn’t take kindly to my response and stopped their car in the middle of street and jumped out. Now, this was a busy intersection with a popular hot dog stand on one corner, a noodle stand on another and a nightclub with a long line of patrons waiting to be admitted. I figured there must be safety in numbers, so I kept walking across the street. The driver and his friend—it turned out they were budding kickboxers—caught up with me near the nightclub where they confronted me for damaging their ego. It turned out that witnesses were no deterrent to what happened next. The crowd formed a circle around us, and after my adversaries gave me an earful they beat me down, causing permanent injuries. I didn’t have my phone with me at the time so I asked if anyone would call the police or at least serve as a witness. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, the circle dissolved and everyone went back to eating hot dogs and getting frisked by bouncers. I couldn’t believe it. When I called the police, they said, sure, come by the precinct tomorrow (it was Saturday night), just not around lunch time. The next day I went down, avoiding lunch time, and the coppers focused their efforts on preventing me from reporting a crime. “C’mon,” they said, “be a man. It’s gonna be a giant hassle. Trust us, you don’t want to have to deal with this in court.” Finally, after telling me that they couldn’t keep my address and identity confidential—”C’mon, what do you think this is? A dictatorship where you can just denounce anybody anonymously?”—I gave up and went home. It was weeks before I could walk again without a limp.

My point in sharing this is that it can be difficult to do the right thing even when it’s obvious what the right thing is, like helping a stranger who has been beaten or injured and left for dead on the side of the road. Maybe you feel unprepared. I sure did. Maybe you don’t want to get involved in a violent situation between what appear to be a couple of hotheads. A lot of my neighbors sure didn’t. So what about situations where the right thing isn’t even obvious? Where it simply doesn’t occur to you that maybe the nice couple down the street has their thirteen children in chains and on subsistence rations?

What experiences have you had in overcoming reluctance to help others in difficult situations?


  1. Oh man, that last story is a dousy and makes me so mad.

    I know very well that when faced with an emergency I go in to paralysis mode. The world slows down and I experience everything in half-speed. I can force myself to act, but it’s very disconnected. I no longer feel guilty about this (did for a long time) as I did some reading on the brain and why this happens.

    On the family in Southern Calif, I’m not at all surprised no one noticed. Kids don’t play outside any more. Next-door-neighbor’s don’t know each others’ names or faces. We are so focused on what is happening within our own walls that the rest of the neighborhood ceases to exist once we pull our cars into our garages and shut the door. Our yards are cared for by paid landscapers. Our windows and cleaned by paid cleaners. If we sit outside, it is in our walled backyards.

    This might be less true of the Mormon corridor (where your neighbors are your ward members), but is very true in California. In our last neighborhood where the houses were pressed up against each other, I could name 3 families of the 20 that lived within my-kids-tennis-ball-just-broke-your-window distance. And that’s not even getting into the high turnover of rentals because the house prices are too high for people to stay long.

  2. Thanks, ReTx, you made me look up the spelling and entymology of duesy/doozy/dousy :)

    It’s almost impossible to navigate the line between “I should have seen/done something” and “I’m making this to be more than it is”. Stories of the authorities stepping in tend to be horror stories of people’s kids being taken away over differences in parenting styles by neighbors who think they are saving the children from worse than death. Making a bright line for mandatory reporting can cause more problems than it solves.

    I wish I had some good solutions to propose. I like to think that I’d step up when emergencies happen, but the last time I tried tracking down the source of a baby crying outdoors I ended up finding a squirrel screeching at the top of its lungs.

  3. My neighbors could be sacrificing farting elephants to Satan, and I would not notice.

  4. I’m afraid I don’t stop and think, I simply act. Providing I see a problem. And isn’t that the crux of your stories? IS there a problem and can I help? Clearly you were provided with opportunities for service.

    That whole crowd/beating business is sadly a facet of big city life and your home is now in one of those. People have been murdered and raped within the view of hundreds of silent and unwilling to get involved witnesses in such places. Me? I’d leave. I did actually because I too used to live there.

    It takes courage to step up to violence and try to stop it and sadly most of us don’t possess that quality. The ones who do take their lives in their hands,sometimes literally. And I’m sorry to hear the police in your city are or are becoming as corrupt and lazy as we see them being elsewhere.

    Well some say it’s end of times and your Good Samaritan situation underscores that. I’m sorry you didn’t have a good Samaritan…that bouncer at the club could have probably stopped things before they got so bad, but again..didn’t want to get involved. I admit I’m shocked NOBODY called the police though, what with all the cell phones everywhere, but I’m that touch naive perhaps.

  5. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    ReTX speaks the truth. It’s especially the case in relatively cheap places like Perris and next-door Menifee, or the Antelope and Victor Valleys elsewhere in SoCal, or the Vacaville/Fairfield and Tracy/Stockton areas in NorCal. These are places where almost everyone who works outside the home has an insanely long commute. There are no jobs in Perris that can come close to paying for a house like the Turpins’, or even could have at 2012 prices. If the father was working at a Northrop Grumman office, you’re talking about a 60-mile-each-way commute to the nearest NG facility in Rancho Bernardo, at the northern edge of San Diego. My folks’ ward down in Temecula has a bunch of fathers in it who commute ~60 miles to La Jolla every day. There just isn’t a lot of time in the evenings to hang out.

    And as much as it pains me to say it, the ethnic diversity of much of California can further isolate folks. Since 2014 I’ve rented a big house in one of the closer-in Inland Empire cities, in a mid-2000s neighborhood that’s somewhat cheap because of bad location (too close to the freeway, no park nearby, bad locally zoned school). There are 15 houses on the street; #1-7 are on the north side and 8-15 are on the south. I don’t know if WordPress’ formatting allows tables, so I’ll just go through the list:

    House #: ethnicity/nationality; frequency of interaction?
    1: [currently vacant]
    2: US-born Black and immigrant Thai; quarterly
    3: Chinese immigrant; never
    4: Chinese immigrant; quarterly
    5 [us]: US-born and immigrant White; N/A
    6: US-born Black and US-born Filipino; weekly
    7: Ethiopian immigrant; weekly
    8: Colombian immigrant; quarterly
    9: White American; quarterly
    10: Immigrant Filipino + immigrant Overseas Chinese w/US-born adult children; daily
    11: US-born White; daily
    12: Afghan immigrant; annually (they have particularly bad English)
    13: US-born Black; quarterly
    14: [currently vacant]
    15: US-born Arab; monthly (they used to live in #5 so we still get way too much of their mail)

    So out of 12 other occupied houses on my block, there are only four with whom my wife and/or I interact at least once a week, three of whom are fellow US natives. The Ethiopian family has children slightly younger than mine (their two sons had a birthday party that my family attended last year, and it was awesome) but my kids generally don’t have time to play with them because of differing schools/preschools and activities. That’s pretty sad. If there were a family like the Turpins on my street that never came out during the day, I seriously doubt that I or anyone else would say anything about it as long as they didn’t have trash in the front yard.

    To use a couple of common metaphors: sometimes I worry that California is neither a melting pot nor a salad bowl, but a bento box, with lots of variety among compartments but rigid walls between them. This is becoming even more the case as housing prices increase and mainland Chinese buyers paying cash (often in savings stitched together from multiple family members back in China, BTW) become the primary buyers in more and more places. I have a lot of Chinese-American coworkers who came to SoCal from Taiwan and Hong Kong in the ’70s or whose parents did; even they hardly interact with the current cohort of mainland Chinese, so what chance does your average white, black, or Chicano family have?

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I often feel like I’m a bad neighbor. I don’t actually know any of my neighbor’s names, and the most interaction I have is an occasional wave to the ones on either side of me. When our kids were at home and there were more kids in the neighborhood back then, we would interact with neighbors because of our kids. But our kids are long gone, and there are hardly any children in the neighborhood at all anymore. There could be a dungeon in a house down the street and I would have no clue.

  7. I’ve avoided this story and avoided this story and avoided it. I don’t want to hear it or see it or know it. It scares me. All I can do is run away.

    Because I am a parent… Oh dear Lord, am I feeling empathy for these monsters?

    Depravity aside (not just aside but bolted and locked and far away), what real helps are there for parents who have reached their limit?

    What does your ward do for new parents, tired parents, stressed parents or broken parents?

    What does your community do?

    Do you think it is enough?

    Some situations, the scary ones, are too scary. And while you freeze in fear, I run.

  8. Jack Hughes says:

    When the news of the Turpin family broke earlier this week, I was saddened by the situation, but also happy to learn that they weren’t LDS. The sad irony of it is that most of us Mormons probably have at least one family in our respective ward that fits the same profile, at least partially (more kids than they can afford, kids are hyper-obedient/compliant, kids are borderline malnourished/neglected, older kids raise the younger ones, kids are antisocial from being homeschooled/sheltered, fundamentalist religious views, dad cuts his own hair to save money, etc.). The family of one of my childhood bishops comes to mind. In hindsight, I wouldn’t be surprised if he kept his seemingly perfect kids chained up at home. But that family’s strangeness never raised any alarms among ward members, as far as I could tell; if anything, they were lauded and celebrated for their perceived righteousness and dedication.

    In my current ward, my wife is a primary teacher, and in less than six months in the calling she has made repeated reports to the primary president, and later the bishop, about the children of one particular family who exhibit textbook behavior of victims of neglect. So far, it doesn’t appear that the situation has improved. It’s hard to step up and be a good Samaritan when the system is stacked against those whom it is supposed to help. The possibility of being accused of making false reports is additionally discouraging.

  9. While reporting to ward leadership may sometimes be helpful, if there’s genuine reason to believe that there’s neglect or abuse going on, people should consider calling Child Protective Services.

  10. On my neighborhood facebook page a young woman posted about her anger that her parents had been reported to Child Protective Services. She wanted to know if anyone in the neighborhood had made this anonymous report. She said it was wrong and unfair. Furthermore she complained that this was the third time in the past few years that a report had been filed by someone. I didn’t know what to think. There is always the other side of the coin. Or multiple sides to a multifaceted coin.

  11. I would have no idea if our next door neighbors (who have two small kids) were chaining them up, at least in wintertime. I mean, I hear the kids screaming every so often but they hear ours screaming at least as often, and I promise I don’t chain mine up :) In the summer we often see them in the evenings going to the park or hanging out with another family down the street, but now it’s dark so we (and probably they) don’t go out in the evenings, and I’m realizing that I haven’t actually seen them in months besides our cars passing or something. Two doors down, forget it, I don’t even know if they have kids (I don’t think so).

    I think I would have a much better idea if someone in our ward were chaining up their kids (which I emphatically don’t think is the case).

  12. Anonymous says:

    Jack, in some states a primary teacher is a mandated reporter and is legally obligated to report suspicions of that sort to social services or law enforcement. Failure to report is a misdemeanor.

    There are certain states where every church member who works with children under eighteen must have a full background check, fingerprints and all.

    I just looked at Utah’s code to see what it says about liability for false reports. It says that “Any person, official, or institution participating in good faith in making a report, taking photographs or X-rays, assisting an investigator, serving as a member of a child protection team, or taking a child into protective custody, is immune from any liability, civil or criminal, that otherwise might result by reason of those actions, except [for specific cases that include fraud, fabricating evidence, etc.].”

    You may want to talk to a lawyer.

    Your concern is not invalid, though. (Just changed my name to Anonymous to conceal the identities of the people in the following story.) A number of years ago a member of my ward was horrified at the situation in a home she visited by assignment in the ward and requested that social services assess the situation. When the bishop found out, he was very angry at the sister who reported the problems and made things so uncomfortable for her family that they found jobs elsewhere and left the ward. I really can’t explain why the bishop thought it was such a problem. Perhaps he thought she was trespassing on his stewardship or would drive the inactive family into more inactivity? I can only guess since I’m certainly not going to ask him about it. This was only one of many problems in the ward over the course of two bishops who were under-informed and overwhelmed, and fortunately those days are past and the ward has more reliable leadership now.

  13. nobody, really says:

    I was working for a furniture company decades ago when we made an electric range delivery to a house. The place was beyond filthy – baking sheets stuck to the side of the old unit. Trash overflowing the can and spread in an eight foot radius. Dirty diapers tossed into the backyard where the dog shredded them.

    They had a little girl, probably 5, with little blond curls. She was in diapers, filthy face, and open sores in the creases of her elbows and knees. Before we left, she shook my pants leg and asked if I wanted a little girl. I told her that I thought her parents would miss her, she looked to her parents and they didn’t reply at all.

    When we got back to the store, I brought this up with the delivery manager. He told me that the company could be held legally liable for making a report that resulted in a false investigation.

    That night, I had a really vivid dream. I woke up and knew that I would be held morally responsible at the Last Day if I didn’t do anything. Fortunately, I was able to talk to CPS and describe the situation, and was reassured that they wouldn’t put anything into the report that could identify me or my employer. I’ve made a couple of other calls since then for other situations. I made one call like this while working as a mall Santa.

    There comes a point where it isn’t a work matter and it isn’t a Church matter. It becomes one where Christ will look at us, shake His head, and ask us how we could have let that situation continue. And we will have a very difficult time providing an answer.

  14. Anon for This says:

    I worked as a family law attorney for a few years and saw some awful circumstances where CPS was called in. Usually drugs were a large factor in a parent neglecting or abusing small children. In many cases, another relative (sometimes even the other parent) is able to take custody and care for the kids. I don’t know who called CPS in any given situation (neighbors, probably, but that info was redacted on all the reports I saw), but whoever did report these incidents did a good thing.

  15. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Jack Hughes, I had the same reaction.

    The Church stopped preaching against birth control what, 30 years ago? And yet there are people my age (mid 30s) and up to a decade older who grew up in families that clearly had reproduced beyond their abilities (financial and emotional), were raised by their older siblings, etc. and yet are choosing to breed small armies. I have cut the Fast Offering checks for these people, but I certainly didn’t feel good doing it.

  16. Forgive me Heptawhatchamacallit if this no. 6 doesn’t share your enthusiasm for 2.5 kids max families. Man I’m glad my parents begat me! Of course I am certainly callously footprinting carbons that rightly belong to the Reubens and Simeons.

  17. nobody, really says:

    Perhaps Hepta should just change his definition of “Nazis” to cover any family with 3 or more children. Then it’s okay to beat them.

  18. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    nobody: I’m sorry that I can’t bring myself to tolerate people who have looked at the greatest evils ever committed by humankind and said, “Hey, this looks pretty cool, I want to be just like them.”

    If this makes me a bad Christian, well, I’ll pay for that on the other side.

  19. nobody, really says:

    Hey, we all agree that Nazis are evil.

    What we don’t agree with is that if somebody cuts in front of you in the 8 items or less lane at the grocery store with 11 things in their basket, that should make them subject to a war crimes tribunal at Nuremberg.

  20. Hepta, here’s one reader who gets that you’re not saying >2.5 kids = Nazi.

  21. I actually just vlogged about my experience breaking up a fight like the one you talked about in your third example (less of a fight, more of a beating-up). if anyone’s interested, 5:31 minutes in.

  22. Holy freaking hell Jack Hughes and anyone else who believes that the appropriate response to seeing evidence of abuse or neglect is to tell the Primary President or the Bishop. Call CPS or the police! Your fellow ward members are not the authorities. They have zero ability to intervene. There is no reason whatsoever to put them in as a middle man between you and the people who have the ability to investigate and take appropriate action.

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