The mother of 13 children found starving and living in squalid conditions in Perris, Calif. was "perplexed" when confronted by deputies at her home, a sheriff's official said Tuesday.
Louise Turpin was arrested Sunday along with her husband, David Turpin, after a 17-year-old girl escaped from the house on Muir Woods Road and alerted authorities. Deputies checking on the residence found at least three children chained and padlocked to their beds in "dark and foul-smelling surroundings," according to a release from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.
"I can't get into the specific details of the conversation, but it seemed that the mother was perplexed as to why we were at that residence," Riverside County Sheriff's Capt. Greg Fellows said at a press conference Tuesday.
The couple's children ranged in age from 2 to 29. Investigators believe the couple are the biological parents of all 13 children. The younger children were taken to Riverside University Health System. The adult children — five women and two men — were transported to Corona Medical Center, where they were together and comfortable, according to the hospital's CEO, Mark Uffer.
Some of the adults were described as emaciated.
"It's hard to think of them as adults when you first see them, because they're small and it's very clear that they're malnutritioned," Uffer said.
A nutrition expert says the siblings, who were small and malnourished when they were found captive in their home, may have been deprived of nutrients during key growth-spurt years.
Dr. Donald Kirby, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the Cleveland Clinic, said Tuesday that deprivation can lock kids into their smaller bodies, with further growth impossible.
Kirby says for an adult to be so malnourished they appear more like a child, they need to have lacked nutrients for years. A 17-year-old girl who escaped and called 911 was so small that deputies initially mistook her for a 10-year-old.
Kirby says the recovery time for long-term malnutrition could take years.
Perris Mayor Michael Vargas said he was devastated at the cruelty in this case and felt for the victims.
"I can't begin to imagine the pain and suffering that they have endured," he said.
It was still unclear how long the children had been held in those conditions. Few new details emerged Tuesday, but Fellows said his department had no prior contacts with the family.
Pictures on a Facebook page under the name David-Louise Turpin showed recent pictures of the couple and all of their children, apparently at a ceremony to renew their wedding vows.
An earlier photo, posted in 2011, showed the family at Disneyland.
The family previously lived for a time in Murrieta and had also resided in Texas, Fellows said.
There was no indication at this point of sexual abuse or of mental illness on the part of the parents, but the investigation is ongoing, Fellows said.
The children have been fed. Treatment for patients in their condition generally includes CT scans, X-rays and other diagnostic studies to ensure they have no other underlying problems, according to Dr. Sophia Grant, medical director of the child abuse unit at Riverside University Health.
"The long term needs of these kids are going to be the psychological and psychiatric needs due to the prolonged long periods of starvation and maltreatment," Grant said.
Health officials offered few other specifics about their condition, citing privacy laws, but did say they seemed to be doing OK.
"They've gone through a very traumatic ordeal," Uffer said. "I can tell you that they are very friendly, they're very cooperative, and I believe that they're hopeful that life will get better for them after this event."
The county was seeking permission from the court to provide oversight and care for the children, including the adults if needed, according to Susan von Zabern, director of the county's Department of Public Social Services.
Bail for the parents was set at $9 million each.
This story has been updated.