The Psychology of Child Torture
David Allen Turpin, 57, and Louise Anna Turpin, 49, from Perris California, face accusations of torture, child endangerment and holding their 13 children captive.
Authorities found some of their kids chained to beds, “in dark and foul-smelling surroundings,” following an emergency phone call from the 17-year-old daughter who escaped from the house on Sunday.
Dirty and emaciated children are said to have been forced to memorise passages of the Bible during “very strict” home schooling sessions.
This last allegation along with the gathering evidence raises the spectre of an extreme form of child abuse amounting to child torture.
What is the motivation behind perpetrators of this kind of extreme crime?
What is likely to be the kind of torture that these children experienced? They may be too traumatised to give a clear account themselves, at least in the immediate future?
Perhaps some possible answers may be revealed by research into this phenomenon, including a case series of 28 children in the USA suffering from physical abuse, neglect, torture and psychological maltreatment, such as terrorizing and isolation.
Entitled ‘Child Torture as a Form of Child Abuse’, the study includes cases where children were given caustic substances as “punishment food”, another was so deprived of water they were forced to drink from the toilet, another was chronically starved with all access to food in the house locked away, another was strangled until unconscious and stabbed with a knife, suffered attempted suffocation by plastic bag duct-taped over her head and was struck over the head with metal objects & baseball bats.
Another child was kept locked in the boot of a car.
The study, published in 2014 in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma found thirty-six percent of the children died as a result of their abuse, and the torture could extend up to 8 years in duration.
The authors of the study argue that torture contrasts with other forms of child abuse, which usually results from episodic unchecked anger or loss of self-control in a person in charge of a child.
Torture, instead is more prolonged and designed to establish domination and control over the child’s psyche. Torture is carried out to physically and psychologically ‘break’ someone. Currently it is estimated that 1 to 2 % of children being evaluated for abuse in the USA, in fact represent cases of torture.
93% of children were beaten, 21% had fractures, 89% were extremely isolated, 61% were physically restrained and 89% were restricted from food or water.
Specific threats of death were made to 32%. Nearly all children were medically neglected, yet half had a history of prior referrals to child protection services.
The authors of the study, Barbara Knox, Suzanne Starling, Kenneth Feldman, Nancy Kellogg, Lori Frasier and Suzanna Tiapula, point out the social isolation of the children contributes significantly to the circumstances facilitating torture.
89% had been isolated from people outside the immediate family; 75% even experienced solitary confinement. This social isolation typically involved preventing the child from attending school or day care. 29% of school-age children were not allowed to attend school; an additional 47% who had been enrolled in school were removed under the auspice of “home schooling.” Isolation was accompanied by an escalation of physically abusive events.
39% were either biologic mother or father, and females were among the perpetrators in every case. Unlike other forms of abuse, most perpetrators of torture partially confessed to their crimes; however, they significantly minimized or rationalized their individual involvement.
One fourteen-year-old investigated in this research reported being forced to eat roaches, spiders, and other insects as a form of punishment, including an attempt by the family to force feed her a dead mouse. Her father bound her hands behind her back, taped plastic bags over her head and torso, and threatened to drown her.
This study, by authors based at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Eastern Virginia Medical School, University of Washington, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, University of Utah, and the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, found abusers demonstrated little or no remorse.
Instead most perpetrators blamed their victims for precipitating the abuse, using the explanation of necessary discipline and corporal punishment to justify their abusive acts. Commonly perpetrators see it as a religious duty to discipline their children harshly, which is a particular finding that resonates with the current case in the media spotlight.
In a study entitled ‘Invisible children’, the Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect (CCAN) of the North Carolina Pediatric Society, investigated whether some child victims escape attention specifically because of home schooling.
The investigation found that the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education (DNPE) had 6 staff members, 3 of whom were clerical, yet it was responsible for monitoring 45,000 home schools, with an estimated 80,000 students.
In any given year, the authors of this study, Meggan Goodpasture, Denise Everett, Martha Gagliano, Aditee Narayan and Sara Sinal, found that contact is made with approximately 300 families, but this does not involve a visit to the home school or the home by the DNPE.
These 300 families constitute less than 1% of registered home schools in North Carolina, and according to this study published in the North Carolina Medical Journal in 2013, no one on the staff had physically been to the home of a home-schooled child to conduct a home visit, as part of the monitoring process, since the year 2000.
The authors of this study argue that child maltreatment can present under the pretext of home schooling, but they also concede that inappropriately connecting child abuse with home schooling may lead to discrimination, infringement of parental rights, and invasion of privacy.
Children in the mainstream school setting are abused and that abuse can also go undetected.
However, home schooling may be a signal that the parents hold profoundly different views about how their children should be educated than the rest of society. One possibility is that some will have more authoritarian views leading to more violence when disciplining or controlling children.
According to a study published in 2002 in the journal Aggressive Behaviour, school corporal punishment is banned in 27 states of the USA and permitted in 23. Southern states are overrepresented among permitting states (62% compared with 32% of total), and northeast states among the prohibiting (30% compared with 18% of total).
This study, entitled, ‘School Shooting Fatalities and School Corporal Punishment: A Look at the States’, examined the association between student deaths from school shootings across 50 states according to the state’s policy on the use of corporal punishment in schools.
The author of the study, Doreen Arcus, from the University of Massachusetts, found there were significantly more school shooting deaths in states allowing school corporal punishment compared with those that do not.
Also, the rate of school corporal punishment was moderately correlated with the rate of fatal school shootings both across all states and within the South, the region in which endorsement of school corporal punishment is most prevalent.
The author concludes that endorsement of school corporal punishment reflects a set of values that are punitive in nature and create a context conducive to the violence that characterizes school shootings.
Child torture arises within a wider context where rearing children is through control, inevitably necessitating aggression. Control becomes vital if, for example, you have unusual religious or political beliefs, which are likely to be challenged or diluted by a child’s contact with the external world. You become paranoid that the child really must adhere extremely closely to your doctrine otherwise they appear at risk for straying.
Extreme violence perpetrated through torture is not about an impulsive temporary loss of control in a care-giver, but more about a whole child-rearing philosophy.
A philosophy which is merely further along a spectrum of what are already widely held views in certain parts of the USA.
We now know children are more likely to die in school shootings in states permitting schools to practice corporal punishment, than in states in which the practice has been prohibited, and the more physically punitive discipline is practiced in schools, the more likely students are likely to die in school shootings in those states.
School shootings and child torture appear linked by an attitude of violence toward children as a way of controlling them.
Something about a broader culture of raising children, in certain parts of the USA, is backfiring.