Riverside County officials knew for months that some of the 13 children tortured and starved by a Perris couple were struggling in their new lives after their 2018 rescue.
Yet they won’t explain what they did to care for the children or why it took the county until the morning of a “20/20” special on ABC in November to announce an investigation into the troubles detailed by three of the adult Turpin children and suggested by criminal court documents.
Many other questions remain about how taxpayers’ dollars were spent on the siblings’ care and what happened to cash donated by the public to help the so-called Magnificent 13.
With the probe by a former federal judge underway, county officials — citing the investigation, legal mandates and a court order — say they can’t or won’t talk about how the alleged abuse of some of the minor Turpins by their foster parents went undetected and why. Nor will they explain why, despite the existence of a county-administered trust that contained at least $275,000 in donations from the public as of February 2018, some adult Turpins said that they have inadequate housing or not enough food.
Though probate court records show a judge is demanding to know why the Riverside County Public Guardian has failed to file an accounting of that trust, county officials did not explain why.
And county officials won’t say whether the housing and food problems have been fixed, months after District Attorney Mike Hestrin said in a summer interview for the Nov. 19 special “We’ve got to shine a light on this.”
Even Hestrin, who told “20/20” that the siblings “have been victimized again by the system,” said little recently about the Turpins.
It’s not the first time questions have been raised about how Riverside County protects abused and neglected children.
Millions of taxpayer dollars have been paid to settle lawsuits alleging social workers botched cases that led to horrific outcomes for children, including a girl found holding her dead infant sibling and another who gave birth to her rapist’s baby. In other cases, 8-year-old Corona boy Noah McIntosh vanished and his father was charged with murder after the county resisted removing him from his home where abuse was alleged. And foster parent John David Yoder was convicted of child molestation after social workers sounded alarms in a case believed to involve Yoder, only to be overruled by superiors.
Those cases led to a yearlong outside review of the county Children’s Services Division that promised improvements more than a year before concerns about the Turpin children’s care arose.
Riverside County officials responded to questions only in writing and declined a request for an in-person interview.
Two county departments are involved in the Turpins’ care. The Department of Social Services oversees foster family placements. The Department of Behavioral Health oversees the Public Guardian, which deals with trusts and conservatorships.
The Turpin case shocked and horrified the world when, in January 2018, 17-year-old Jordan Turpin slipped out a window in the middle of the night and used her brother’s cell phone to call 911.
Searching the Turpins’ home, sheriff’s deputies found siblings ages 2 to 29 who were filthy, malnourished, chained to beds and stunted in their physical and mental development from a lifetime of abuse. David and Louise Turpin eventually pleaded guilty to 14 felony counts and were sentenced in 2019 to 25 years to life in state prison.
The seven adult Turpin siblings were placed in a conservatorship overseen by the county, with the minors going to foster homes. In November, three members of a Perris family were charged with physically and psychologically abusing nine foster children, including five who, based on court records, appear to be members of the Turpin family.
Jordan Turpin, now an adult, and Jennifer Turpin, the eldest offspring, told “20/20” they continue to struggle.
“I don’t really have a way to get food right now,” Jordan said in the July interview. Jennifer Turpin said she struggled to find housing and money for food.
The children also reported difficulty in accessing money in a trust overseen by the Public Guardian. Joshua Turpin, who is an adult, told “20/20” that the county Public Guardian’s office refused his request for money to buy a bicycle.
The Turpin children also told ABC News that the Public Guardian wouldn’t help them learn to use public transportation, cross a street safely or access medical benefits.
“We’re very upset to learn that their needs are not being met,” said Kim Mabon, chairman of the board of the Corona Chamber of Commerce, which raised $210,875 for the Turpins.
That money is not in the county-controlled trust but went to a group that assists domestic violence victims to help the Turpins with expenses not paid for by the county or state.
DA: ‘I can’t talk about’ Turpins
Hestrin told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that some of the adult children were living in “squalor” in crime-ridden neighborhoods.
“The public deserves to know what their government did and didn’t do,” the district attorney said.
When questioned by a Southern California News Group reporter in December, Hestrin, citing the county investigation, declined to say who he told about the Turpins’ woes and when, or whether the housing and food difficulties had been resolved in the months since he revealed them.
“I can’t talk about it,” Hestrin said. “I said what I said. The county is looking into it. I support the county. We’re working together.”
County spokesperson Brooke Federico wrote that the county “is prohibited from disclosing specific information about this case” due to “confidentiality laws” and a 2018 court order sealing information about the Turpin children.
“We will have more to share once the independent inquiry is concluded and a public report is finalized by the end of March,” Federico said, adding that “the county is not available for an interview” until after its probe led by retired judge Stephen G. Larson, ends.
Roger Booth, an attorney who has sued Riverside County in roughly 10 cases involving alleged mismanagement of child protective cases, said in an email that the county filed the court motion to seal the Turpin conservatorship file.
“It seems a bit disingenuous for the county to now argue that the order ties their hands in terms of disclosing information about how the conservatee might have been mistreated,” Booth said.
Riverside County officials would not say when they learned about troubles some of the 13 children were having.
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department began investigating the foster family caring for the five minor children at least as far back as March 3, according to a sworn declaration to obtain an arrest warrant. That investigation led to the arrests of Marcelino, Lennys and Rosa Olguin, who have been charged with willful child cruelty and other crimes. They are due to enter pleas in February.
Hestrin and Melissa Donaldson, the DA’s director of victim services, taped their “20/20” interviews sometime in summer. But it was not until October the county contacted Larson about an investigation. And it was not until Nov. 19, the morning the “20/20” show aired, that the county announced it had begun a probe.
Court session may yield information
An upcoming court hearing could offer clues to what’s going on.
On Friday, Jan. 7, Public Guardian officials are scheduled to be in a Riverside courtroom for a hearing on what court records call their failure to file an accounting of the Turpin trust money. The Public Guardian was late filing accountings in June and August 2020, and appeared at a hearing in January 2021 for failure to file an accounting, court notices show.
The accounting appeared to have been made current after the January hearing before again falling behind, according to court records. The date of the missed deadline was unclear. The index of events in the probate case is a public record, but the documents filed are not.
A trust attorney not connected to the case called the accounting notices troubling and a sign the person controlling the trust “is not doing their job.”
“One of their prime duties is to account and report,” said David Sherak, an attorney at Vogt Resnick Sherak LLP in Newport Beach. “And missing that deadline and being ordered to account is unusual and is usually cause for removal of that trustee.”
County officials would not discuss any aspect of the trust or explain, in general terms, how trusts operate.
Government agencies such as a Public Guardian typically control trusts for minors and adults if they, friends or relatives are not capable, Sherak said.
This trust was established for the physically and cognitively impaired Turpins as a Special Needs Trust, with the Public Guardian as trustee, court records show. Such a trust is designed to supplement and not replace public benefits such as Medicare and Social Security.
Trustees such as the Public Guardian have broad discretion in distributing money, so if a beneficiary requests money, it is not automatically given, Sherak said.
Seeing in the TV interview that some Turpins struggled to afford food and housing left Sherak “heartbroken,” he said.
“That’s one of the principal requirements of a trust, to provide care and support and food,” he said. “Things like that would seem like pretty easy discretionary expenditures.”
County’s care questioned before
Riverside County responded via email to general questions about how vulnerable adults and children are cared for.
Adult conservatees can receive mental health treatment, housing assistance and help applying for welfare benefits, according to an email sent by Federico. Foster children’s well-being and development is monitored by county employees, she wrote.
Those supervising or in direct contact with foster children are legally required to report suspected abuse and neglect, officials said, adding that the Department of Public Social Services may join with authorities and medical professionals to investigate possible abuse.
Booth was the attorney for two girls whose lawsuits against the county were settled for more than $11 million in 2018.
In one case, a 4-year-old girl, whose mother was in contact with social workers, was found hugging her dead infant sibling’s mummified remains. Another lawsuit alleged the county failed to protect a girl repeatedly raped by her mother’s boyfriend and gave birth to his baby.
“I definitely think that Riverside County has had more than its fair share of really horrendous stories about kids getting abused and neglected under their watch,” Booth said by phone.
The yearlong review commissioned by the county and released in October 2019 found the county “has made significant strides over the past five months to ensure the safety and well-being of children.”
Booth, who said he still awaits improvements, said he’s seen patterns of questionable decisions by social workers, including “a real reluctance to remove kids from their parents.”
In response to Booth, Federico’s email said the county’s priority is “making timely, appropriate decisions that promote the safety, health and well-being of children.”
The last question posed to the county was, given officials’ decision not to discuss details of the Turpin and other cases, how should the public scrutinize its performance?
County officials did not answer.
Source: Orange County Register