The 20/20 special on the Turpin children is disturbing and exploitative

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Trigger warning on this story
I watched a half hour of the nearly one and a half hour 20/20 special on the 13 children recovered from extreme abuse and neglect in Perris, California in 2018. It felt exploitative, especially when the 33 year victim, Jennifer Turpin, said she needed a break because it was hard to recount the abuse she suffered as a child. Diane Sawyer conducted the interview and seemed to care little about the mental health of the women being interviewed. The other sister on camera was Jordan Turpin, who was just 17 when she escaped and told her story to a 911 operator and a police officer, saving her brothers and sisters from unimaginable conditions.

Sawyer’s interview style is cold and clinical, which is fine for regular interviews but not in this case. I’m reminded of the Ohio kidnapping victims being interviewed by Robin Roberts for 20/20. She was empathetic and understanding. By showing so many videos from inside the house and using recreated footage, 20/20 presented horrific abuse as entertainment. It was uncomfortable to watch and that’s why I turned it off. I’m disappointed in 20/20 but I guess this is how they always report true crime cases. It’s been years since I watched it.

Apparently at the end of the show they revealed how the other children are doing. The under-18 children were placed in foster care and the older children were left to fend for themselves. There was a small fortune in donations available for the care but it was meted out by a guardian who did little to help them. Here is some of People’s reporting on that.

Prior to their rescue, the Turpin children had spent most of their lives indoors — hidden from the outside world — where they were regularly beaten and starved. At times, the children were chained to their beds or put in cages for breaking house rules, which included keeping their hands off their parents’ food and remaining seated unless directed otherwise…

A new investigation from ABC News, featured on Friday’s episode of 20/20, reveals the rocky road that the Turpin siblings faced in the years that followed their rescue, validated by a few brave county officials aiming to expose a broken system.

“The public deserves to know what their government did and didn’t do, and how we failed these victims,” said Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin. “[It's] unimaginable to me that we could have the very worst case of child abuse that I’ve ever seen, maybe one of the worst in California history, and that we would then not be able to get it together to give them basic needs, basic necessities.”

After leaving the “House of Horrors,” the seven Turpin children who were minors were placed in foster homes. The six adult children were given a court-appointed public guardian to manage their health care, nutrition, safety, housing and education.

What reportedly followed were a series of new horrors. In one of the foster homes that several Turpins lived in, children were allegedly abused over an extended period of time. In another home, a foster parent told one of the Turpin girls that she understands why her parents chained her up.

The older siblings, who were sent out into high-violence neighborhoods with little-to-no life skills training, have allegedly been denied basic care from their public guardian. Speaking with ABC News, they reported that their guardian was often unwilling to offer simple support, such as teaching them how to use public transportation, cross the street properly, and access their health care benefits.

“When I would ask her for help, she would just tell me, you know, ‘Just go Google it,’” said Joshua Turpin, now 29.

Some of the older children, including Jordan, have also struggled to find stable housing and continued to starve.

David Scott, an investigative reporter for ABC News, noted that these poor living conditions persisted despite the Turpin siblings receiving more than $600,000 in donations from strangers following their release.

“Most of that money went into an official trust overseen by the court and hidden from public oversight,” Scott said. “County officials refused to tell us how much has been spent, or on what, but the Turpin we spoke to said those funds are hard to access.”

“It horrifies me to think things like this are happening to people who have been abused in a system that was specifically set up to help them,” said retired Superior Court of California Judge LaDoris H. Cordell. “Shamefully, the system failed this family.”

[From People]

Over a half million in donations was raised, but the young adults didn’t have adequate housing or food and I’m assuming they weren’t offered counseling either. The children had to deal with abusive foster homes. People goes on to report that the four youngest children are now in a safe foster home together and that kidnapping victim Jaycee Dugard has set up a fund to help. How are the people in charge of distributing money to the Turpin children not facing charges? I’m outraged for them, not only because they weren’t taken care of, but because the media is using them as entertainment like this. I hope that this brings awareness to their situation and gets them needed assistance. I’m never going to watch 20/20 again if I can help it.

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57 Responses to “The 20/20 special on the Turpin children is disturbing and exploitative”

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  1. girl_ninja says:

    Diane Sawyer is a horrible person who mistreats the people she interviews. This was evident during the Britney Spears interview and nothing was done to her when it resurfaced. She’s trash and do is ABC for their continued partnership with her.

  2. minx says:

    I thought it was riveting, and that Sawyer treated the two young women with compassion. I was moved to tears several times. I’m glad it has brought attention to their financial plight.

    • Mac says:

      Just like Britney, the courts appointed someone to manage their money without any oversight resulting in abuse. CA is supposed to be a progressive state but how they treat their most vulnerable is appalling.

      • I’m SO fucking furious about this. I have thought about those kids almost every day since I heard about it. It affected me strongly. I sent money to that fund as soon as I heard about it and I would VOLUNTEER to be an advocate and advisor for these poor children. How the HELL do they still have that monstrous guardian?!?! And no ability to access their money on their own ?!?!! These people need love and care. I wanted to watch this to see how they were doing, but reading this, absolutely not. I will also be seeing if there are officials I can reach out to about this. How utterly fucking shameful.

    • Wiglet Watcher says:

      I also thought the interview was good, but there was so much to cover! The court appointed guardian of the funds clearly stole the money. That should have been covered more imo. But the point was to give those survivors a platform. They wanted to speak. The eldest wanted to sing. They wanted this and I’m glad they got that chance instead of being told NO because it didn’t make for the best interview.

  3. Amy Bee says:

    All true crime shows are exploitative.

    • Nikki* says:

      When you are the victim of a crime, it’s no fun to know that your heartbreak is someone else’s entertainment, and someone else’s money-making. I don’t watch them.

      • Ry says:

        No I like when it’s exposed Nikki. I like things out loud.
        How else would we be having this conversation. So I want it put out there.
        Keep it coming.

    • ooshpick says:

      interesting comment. i’m gonna think on that one.

    • lucy2 says:

      I think it depends. I’ve listened to a few true crime podcasts – there are some that have felt very exploitative, and treated it as entertainment – I stopped listening to those quickly. There are a few others, including a bunch from the CBC, that work with victims and/or their families to tell their story, share information, and try to get results. I think it depends on intent, and who is involved.

      That said, I’ve often wondered how people can go on TV and talk about horrific things like this, and sometimes it’s so soon after it’s happened. I always hope they are speaking out of a true desire to, not from pressure.

    • HeyJude says:

      This wasn’t as much true crime as investigatory special specifically intended to blow the lid on the mistreatment of the Turpin children by the state.

      Specifically that their 600k in funds very well might have been embezzled by the deputy public guardian of Riverside County. All the free resources offered to them for services- legal, counseling, doctors, dentists, free education was never even acted on by the county too.

      And that at least one of the minor Turpin’s was abused in the foster home the County place them in, despite repeated complaints by the kids, to which the county left them in that home afterwards. And the abuse was so severe charges resulted from that case.

      This absolutely needed to come out in a widely public manner.

  4. Ennie says:

    Well, I hope they are well paid. If they wanted to do this, they have their reasons.
    I wish they would have been taken care of like Elisabeth and her children did ( the girl from Austria that was kidnapped by her father).

  5. Fuzzy Crocodile says:

    I started it but got distracted and didn’t watch it. This makes me pause. I’m not a huge fan of Diane Sawyer.

    I hope those kids get the help and counseling they need. I can’t even imagine what they’ve been through, continue to go through…

    • LadyMTL says:

      I watched most of it – missed about 20-25 minutes at the beginning – and I didn’t find it any more exploitative than most true crime shows or podcasts are / can be. It was definitely painful to watch, and I’m not a huge fan of Diane Sawyer’s either.
      I think at the very least the ep showed just how badly the system failed those poor kids. If nothing else shining this light on them might get them the assistance they do need (as CB said.)

      • minx says:

        I’ve followed this story from the beginning because it was so horrifying. It was extremely satisfying to see the police handcuff and perp walk those two disgusting, evil parents. I hope they both die in prison.

  6. Steph says:

    I tried watching last night but it was paywalled. For some reason, I don’t remember this story. It sounds utterly horrific. It also made my blood boil to read that the younger kids went into more abuse. I’m so angry that I don’t really have a coherent thought on this story other than I hope the best for them and that something is finally done to make a system they actually works for kids and abuse victims.

  7. Jessica says:

    True crime in general is gross, sensationalistic and exploitative, but there were aspects of this special that I thought had merit, especially the investigative journalism aspect where they brought to light the financial and other forms of abuse these children have been subjected to since all of this happened, and ABC’s attempts to try to question people and hold them accountable. The public should know when the system fails in such an egregious way, and a lot of people watch these shows. I also thought the girls wanted to tell their story and their entire journey was extremely moving. I was astonished at their bravery and maturity given all that they have been through.

    Completely agree that Diane isn’t the best person for these types of interviews, but she’s the biggest “brand name” so that’s why they used her. Diane is the kind of interviewer who does best with murderers, dictators and general scum, i.e. politicians who’ve been caught up in some kind of mess. She’s not my first choice when a tone of compassion and empathy is needed. I’m glad someone mentioned her interview with Britney Spears. That was extremely rough, and she was holding her feet to the fire like a politician needing accountability. Completely inappropriate to the subject and the topics discussed.

    • Katie says:

      The True Crime genre is very large these days, and the absolute best of it showcases not the lurid crimes but the systemic failures, abuses of power, and incompetence of the “good guys”. (For example, the “In the Dark” podcast being the best of the best of the best.) There is no more important duty as a citizen than keeping the pressure on our institutions to be better, and good true crime helps people understand and care.

  8. Sandra says:

    One good thing that came out of the 20/20 program is that there is now an investigation by the county into the social services “mishandling” of the Turpin kids care and support, and the childrens’ lack of access to the money donated to help them…

    ABC and/or the producers of 20/20 pledged to follow the case and to continue to put pressure on those responsible. Hopefully this is the case.

    • clomo says:

      That is the one good thing about these types of shows, they show the injustice to millions of the mass public and when that happens the coppers know they are on blast and hence motivated to get the bad guys/girls punished. But just showing the family’s torture of a lost one is terribly exploitive. I do enjoy Forensic Files once in a while, they can be very educational. But don’t put traumatized kids on tv for ratings, they need to heal and and stay away from prying eyes. I feel like becoming a foster parent just so these kids can feel safe and loved. I have never looked into it, has anyone here ever done that?

  9. LaUnicaAngelina says:

    I haven’t watch it yet but based on this post, exposing the children’s experiences after being rescued is eye opening. There are so many flaws in the foster care system but I honestly thought that with such a high profile case, extra care and supervision would have been in place.

  10. Nan says:

    Diane Sawyer was creepy af but the last section of the show was about the Turpin kids’ lives after they got out of the hospital and how the state of California has completely abandoned them and can’t answer for abusive foster homes, missing funds and guardians who have failed to help the older kids in any way. That was far more disturbing than Diane’s creepy demeanor and hopefully will hold California accountable and get the family a lot more help. Speaking of out-of-touch Diane, there was one small bit where she asked the girls to role-play her and they nailed it, ha ha.

  11. Veruca Salty says:

    This is such a disturbing story and Dianne Sawyer is a terrible interviewer.

    By the way, the location was in Perris, CA, not Perry.

  12. Miranda says:

    God, those poor kids. As I’ve heard and read about the abuse they received before and especially after they were “rescued”, I’ve been unconsciously shaking my head. How utterly miserable would your upbringing have to have been that you wouldn’t know how to cross a street? And my god, I want to slap the shit out of that foster parent who said one girl deserved to be chained up. These children likely needed very specialized care, with highly experienced and patient foster families, but it sounds like they were placed with the sort of foster parents who see vulnerable kids as nothing but a source of cash.

    I honestly don’t know what “justice” would look like for these children and young adults, but I hope they receive it.

  13. Monica says:

    I live in Riverside County, where this all happened. It sucks here in MAGAland. If you’re poor and/or need help, it’s basically “F–k you.”

  14. LovesitinNM says:

    I watched it on hulu. I actually found it less sensationally done than similar programs.
    My takeaway was that they did the interview for money.
    It is really sad and maybe people will realize this is what we have right now and it’s rife with abuse and not doing what it’s supposed to.

    • Lucy says:

      I felt like they did the interview to get attention on how the state failed them after, and to get donations to the Jaycee foundation that is theoretically more trust worthy. So it is exploitive, but they are getting something out of it.
      I won’t watch it, because I can’t take it.

  15. ME says:

    Well if 20/20 hadn’t put out this interview, we wouldn’t be talking about it. Those 13 kids have been failed by the system. 20/20 promised to do an investigation into all this and try to see who is at blame for the children not getting access to the $600 000 raised for them. I thought the interview was good. I don’t think the two girls were forced in to it. They didn’t look like they didn’t want to be there. They want help…and hopefully by them airing this on 20/20 they will now get the help they need.

  16. Dorothy Zbornak says:

    A lot of times the news magazines will pay people for their stories. I’m hoping the young women and their brother (who submitted recorded videos) were paid well for their participation and the licensing of videos/photos. The older sister Jennifer said at the end of the interview portion that she wanted the Turpin name to be associated with strength, and that was why they did it. They’re reclaiming their identity in a way. The children were failed repeatedly: by Jennifer’s elementary teachers who failed to report abuse (before she was pulled out), by neighbors in California, by the system meant to care for all the children once they were rescued. The end investigative half hour really came across as ABC supporting and crusading for the children to get accountability. That for me outweighed any voyeurism, which I thought was done more tactfully than many other true crime magazine programs. I’m a former journalist and I was impressed at how aggressively abc promised to pursue accountability.

  17. DaphneOG says:

    I wept throughout the episode from the moment Jordan called 911. How the system is continuing to fail them enrages me. I want to hand them each a wad of cash.

  18. Natters says:

    My mom is a retired social worker in this county and it drives her crazy to see the level of incompetence that her county has delivered to these children (and Britney). She saw and reported on social workers who were too lazy or corrupt to take care of their charges. Luckily her Union helped her when they tried to punish her for exposing them. She always had the worst stories about what she saw on a daily basis that I have to beg her sometimes to stop talking. She is my hero for going out there to help the unfortunate and I feel her frustration about how incompetent California social services are.

    • Katie says:

      Go, Mom!

    • BothSidesNow says:

      @ Natters, it sounds like your Mother is one of the few social workers out there that take to heart the need of the children first. As I haven’t seen this 20/20 coverage, as I have always staying away from 20/20 and their misplaced purpose in visiting stories of those who are the actual victims, if it brings to light the deficiencies of all that were complicit in the continued abuse placed in these poor children, the better.

      The fact that ABC utilized this opportunity to profit off of the victims instead of listening to the victims makes this entire “investigation” hollow and disgusting. They should have utilized this segment entirely on focusing how the children continue to be abused by the systems inability to care for the them, again.

      In regards to those who work as social workers, there are tremendous deficiencies with regards to this system. Too many cases for one case worker v the number of social workers. There is not enough time and effort placed on cases that they are brought into to investigate the abuse and the victims. The purpose of social workers need to return to what their purpose is. Social workers must use their position to truly investigate and find out IF there are actual crimes being committed instead of basing their findings solely on the responses of the abusers. More time needs to be invested in every single case.

    • Give your mom an extra hug and thank you from me, I know how hard that job is and she’s beyond a hero for sticking up for the kids!!!

  19. molly says:

    If you ever want to be outraged at our society, look into how we fund, manage, oversee, and prioritize foster care, child abuse, and social work. These children may be among the worst, but terrible things like this happen every day in every community. And those trying to do good are overworked, underfunded, and only a drop in the bucket of a system that fails the most vulnerable children over and over.

    • BothSidesNow says:

      @ Molly, thank you for your points that I ineloquently tried to state in my response. You are absolutely right!!

  20. AmelieOriginal says:

    I want to watch this but just reading about it when the story first made headlines was so disturbing. I am a true crime fan but anything involving the abuse/murder of children I usually give a pass on. The last true crime documentary involving a child murder was the Who Killed Little Gregory documentary on Netflix, arguably France’s most famous unsolved murder case (basically their version of the JonBenet Ramsey case). The way the poor parents were harassed and stalked by the media disturbed me so greatly I nearly didn’t finish it and it gave me nightmares. Ever since I’ve reduced my intake of anything involving kids. Given that Diane Sawyer is about as emotive as a boulder and that these poor kids/adults suffered more abuse after they were “rescued,” I’m not sure I have it in me to watch this.

    And while I understand true crime shows can be exploitative, I find the podcasts to be the best medium. Some recent podcasts have investigated cold cases which have led to arrests and those cold cases being solved and the only reason the families got justice and closure was because of renewed attention to the case thanks to the podcast. See Teacher’s Pet in Australia where Lyn Dawson FINALLY got justice for being murdered by her husband or the first season of Up and Vanished (not the hugest fan of the host Payne Lindsey but his podcast got results for the first case he covered). I’m a huge fan of The Australian’s true crime podcasts, I find the host Hedley Thomas to be informative and caring without being exploitative.

    • Lorelei says:

      @Amelie, I cosign all of this. The fact that Teacher’s Pet actually forced that man to face consequences after so many decades was incredible, and ITA about Hedley. You’ve probably already listened to In The Dark, but if not, go listen immediately because it was amazing. It ended up not only freeing an innocent man who had been in prison for decades, but now there’s an enormous spotlight on the racism the DA who handled his case (it was so beyond egregious in every way I get angry just thinking about it) has been enabling for years.
      And I also cannot stand Payne Lindsay, but we have to give him some credit, lol.

      Some true crime stuff is awful — Sword and Scale is an example of one I despise. I get so upset when they play 911 calls…the WORST moment of someone’s life put out there. The story can be told without including audio like that, imo.

      Idk if you listen to “Crime Writers On….” but they are always spot on in their reviews. It comes out every Monday. There are excellent podcasts I never would have known about if not for that show (Connie Walker’s work bringing attention to the atrocities indigenous girls in Canada endured being one of them), and terrible ones that I didn’t bother listening to after hearing their reviews. There are four hosts, so there are different opinions, and they break down so well why some podcasts (they also cover documentaries occasionally) are excellent and why some are exploitative garbage. I don’t necessarily agree with every single one of their reviews, but 95% of the time, I do, and they can explain how crappy a new podcast is and why and I can save myself the time of even bothering with it at all. I highly recommend it!

      On one of their recent episodes, they pointed out that many stories are being framed as “true crime” to grab people’s attention and get as many listeners as possible, like Connie Walker’s, but they end up being much more about systematic issues, etc. “Suspect” was the most recent example of this; it was excellent (and I usually don’t like Wondery shows, but this one was in partnership with another production company, and it was *great*).

      • Lorelei says:

        @Amelie, as soon as I finished typing that reply to you, I checked my email and saw the weekly email that the Crime Writers On… podcast sends out, telling you which shows they’re reviewing this week, and this part right here illustrates exactly why it’s so good and I love it so much:

        “We’ve had some podcasts highlighting miscarriages of justice that got me riled up. But nothing like “Believe Her.” I can’t even type about it without slamming my fingers on the keyboard.

        If you feel for Nikki and want to help her out, there is something you can do. You can sign the petition asking New York’s Governor Hochul to grant Nikki’s application for clemency. I did.

        Rebecca”

        In the email, the sentence about the petition includes a link. I haven’t listened to today’s CWO episode yet, but it made me subscribe to Believe Her immediately, as well as sign the petition!

  21. Diana B says:

    I didn’t think it was insensitive at all. Diane Sawyer is by no means an example of perfect interviewer but I thought she did good here. This story just keeps getting more awful. Those poor kids. And that couple, wow, just mindblowing.

  22. jenn says:

    I found it respectful, and for the most part compassionate. Heavy subject matter makes for tension, naturally. But at one point, Jennifer needed a moment and Diane reached across and took her hand, which she seemed grateful for. I didn’t find Diane cold or exploitative. I thought she provided the sisters quite a bit of agency, and they spent much of the time talking about how the girls were recuperating, experiencing life, their current interests and curiosities. Shining an important light on the financial abuses occurring. I found it particularly important how, through posting singing videos, Jordan received concerned comments from followers that she appeared captive and was able to then engage in conversations that her situation was not normal. This gave her further insight and impetus to get out, and was an example of the internet being a force for good. They were both wide eyed and so very innocent, you just wanted to reach through the screen to hug them both. I was left with a lingering feeling that they are in need of help discerning who is safe and who isn’t, particularly with the flood of attention they are bound to be getting now. Overall, captivating and well done in my opinion.

  23. Lunasf17 says:

    I’ve been wanting to watch this but haven’t got around to it. It was sad to hear how the foster/social systems failed but not surprised at all. Our systems aren’t set up to help people long term in any way. We don’t value social services and therefore are underfunded and let people fall through the cracks. This case is so extreme as well, of course the state doesn’t have a way to actually help these kids and adults. I remember thinking that when this story broke, the resources and support they need don’t exist with the government There isn’t a department set up to help kids and adults that have been locked up and abused and have no idea how to interact with society. If anyone is surprised by this then they aren’t paying attention to the state of our foster care and social services. I hope they get the help they need at this point but I’m not sure who has the authority to actually do this and follow up. Hopefully good comes out of this interview for this family.

  24. Kristen says:

    I watched the whole thing from beginning to end.

    Initially I thought it was exploitative – however, they are raising money for this family and believe me, they need it!

    You can donate here:
    https://thejaycfoundation.org/

  25. Market Street Minifig says:

    “ Diane Sawyer conducted the interview and seemed to care little about the mental health of the women being interviewed.”

    This is absolutely horrifying. Revisiting trauma on someone else’s terms has the potential to do untold harm.

  26. Case says:

    This is why I don’t get the true crime popularity at the moment. It feels so icky to me; these are real people’s lives who were destroyed.

  27. Huit says:

    I worry about foster kids when they turn 18. They still need parenting. We all need love, care and guidance into adulthood.

  28. Mabs A'Mabbin says:

    These children have been ignored their entire lives. Ignored by everyone. Neighbors. Teachers and schools. Government (just because a parent says they’re homeschooling doesn’t mean they’re actually homeschooling). The oldest was in her late 20s. Think about that. Think about not being able to stand, move, eat, bathe, learn, play, socialize or be a human for 29 years. Then when they finally are discovered, they’re simply moved to a different place of abuse in the guise of rescue. It’s appalling, even in the face of hope which continues to light up these two girls’ faces. It’s enormously sad that they are their own advocates because we f@cking suck, but what wonderful and awe-inspiring advocates they are.

  29. Molly says:

    This family needs a safe place, money to live, and some capital “A” goddamn ACCOUNTABILITY. They don’t need sympathy from a warm and fuzzy interviewer, however nice that would make some people feel while they’re consuming the relentless horror of this story.

    True crime IS exploitive and gross. The absolute worst of what humans are capable of doing to each other is packaged for people’s entertaining — How could it not be?

  30. Gulnaz says:

    This is so heartbreaking :(

    What gets me even more enraged is that novel, Girl A by Abigail Dean, which is “inspired” (more like plagiarised) by the lives of these children. Dean makes seven figures from her book deal and has a deal with Netflix for an adaptation deal while these victims struggle to make ends meet.

  31. trudy says:

    Ya again so stupid, you’re harping on the very vehicle that got these poor kids in people’s minds again with their empathy and pockets. so who would benefit if they don’t talk and expose…..

  32. Steph says:

    So I watched it. What DS did that really annoyed me was constantly remarking on Jordan’s speech. It was so unnecessary and gross. Her speech was self explanatory.