It’s the type of news story that makes me queasy, the kind I dread reading and that implores me to scroll past when it pops on the screen. And yet, I can’t look away either. Without adequate words to explain the incredulity I’m feeling, I tune in to the latest installment of a story for which we all must accept some blame.

By now you’ve read about the 13 Southern California siblings rescued by police after one of them, an emaciated 17-year-old, managed to escape the family’s suburban home to call 911 on a cell phone mistakenly left in the house. When the Sheriff’s Department arrived at the four-bedroom house, they discovered a horrific scene, with children shackled to their beds with chains and padlocks, so malnourished they appeared to be much younger than their actual ages. The house was so filthy it was said to reek even from the outside.

The parents, David and Louise Turpin, pleaded not guilty when charged with 12 counts of torture, 12 counts of false imprisonment, seven counts of abuse of a dependent adult, and six counts of child abuse. The father also faces charges of lewd conduct on a child by force or fear. And while I mostly believe in the premise of justice systems and innocence until proven guilty and all that stuff, the images from that house of horrors have my imagination skipping right to the sentencing of the people responsible. Because try as I might, I can’t imagine any circumstance that would explain or justify the cruelty these parents inflicted on their children.

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Everyone interviewed by the media – aunts, neighbours, a grandmother – expressed surprise, accompanied by regret and a healthy dose of guilt. How could they not feel it? The signs of trouble were hidden in plain sight, but no one connected the dots, no one called the police, and no one got involved, even though the family’s isolation and odd behaviour was visible to everyone.

Former neighbours told the media the family was like a cult. “They would march back and forth upstairs at night. The light would be on the whole time, and they would be marching the kids back and forth.” Another neighbour, from when the family lived in a different California community, said the family spoke “robotically, in a monotone, and all at the same time.” But they didn’t call the police about the children, either. Their answer to the uneasy feeling was that the parents were very weird, so we’ll just stay away from them.

This apparently was the conclusion of many, including Louise Turpin’s sisters, who said the children had little or no contact with extended family, which apparently didn’t raise any red flags at the time. Another aunt said in an interview that the kids weren’t allowed to watch TV or have friends over. Yet another one said both sides of the extended family were shut out. No one, however, thought such inaccessibility was worrisome, at least not enough to merit the interference of authorities.

I wish this reaction were unusual, but it’s not. We mostly hole up in our homes, consumed by our day to day schedules. A lot of us live our lives in well-secured bubbles, our connection to neighbours kept to a minimum, our exchanges limited to the obligatory wave across the yard or a polite hello in passing. Still, I’m always baffled and flabbergasted to hear people say they know nothing about the person or family who lives next door. Maybe it’s the Cape Breton in me.

After all, around here we’re used to knowing pretty much everything about everyone (if not from first-hand knowledge then from a friendly though incredibly unreliable source). I have to believe that if there were a large family next door to me with kids chained to the wall, that I’d be observant or at least intuitive enough to see that something was very wrong.

But it’s more than a lack of interest or awareness in cases like this. Fear of getting involved and butting into someone else’s business can stop us from questioning an unusual situation. This latest news item is proof that sometimes acting on our doubts and sticking our necks out is a noble thing, not a character flaw.

You just never know what might be going on behind closed doors. Maybe if there were a few more busybodies around to sound an alarm, there would be fewer horror stories on CNN.

Food for thought.