A California couple who for years starved a dozen of their children and kept some shackled to beds have been sentenced to life in prison, ending a shocking case that revealed a house of horrors hidden behind a veneer of suburban normalcy.

The conditions inside David and Louise Turpin's home in suburban Los Angeles came to light only after one of their daughters fled and pleaded for help to a 911 operator. The parents pleaded guilty in February to neglect and abuse.

The sentencing was preceded by the first public statements from some of the children, who alternately spoke of love for their parents and of what they had suffered, as the couple wiped away tears. None of the children was publicly identified.

David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin with their 13 children. Photo / File
David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin with their 13 children. Photo / File

One of the adult children walked into court already in tears, holding hands with a prosecutor.

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The Turpins' eldest child, a 30-year-old woman, was the first to take the stand as her parents watched on in the moments before they learned their fate.

"My parents took my whole life from me but now I'm taking my life back," she said through tears.

"I believe everything happens for a reason".

"Life may have been bad, but it made me strong. I fought to become the person that I am. I saw my dad change my mom. They almost changed me, but I realised what was happening. ... I'm a fighter. I'm strong and I'm shooting through life like a rocket," a daughter said.

David Turpin and his wife, Louise, pleaded guilty to years of torture and abuse against their children. They were both sentenced to life in prison. Photo / AP
David Turpin and his wife, Louise, pleaded guilty to years of torture and abuse against their children. They were both sentenced to life in prison. Photo / AP

The Turpins will be eligible for parole after 25 years.

"I'm sorry for everything I've done to hurt my children. I love my children so much," Louise Turpin said.

One of the children asked for a lighter sentence for the parents because "they believed everything they did was to protect us."

The eldest Turpin son, 26, delivered an impact statement on behalf of one of his sisters who said she "love(s) both my parents so much".

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"Although it may not have been the best way of raising us, I'm glad they did, because it made me the person I am today," she wrote.

"I pray often for them."

The man then read his own statement in which he said he couldn't "describe in words what we went through growing up".

"Sometimes I still have nightmares of things that happened such as my siblings being chained up or getting beaten.

"But that is the past and this is now. I love my parents and have forgiven them."

The home in a middle-class section of Perris, a small city about 96km southeast of Los Angeles, appeared to be neatly kept, and neighbours rarely saw the kids outside, but nothing triggered suspicion.

But when deputies arrived, they were shocked to find a 22-year-old son chained to a bed and two girls who had just been set free from shackles. Most of the 13 children — who ranged in age from 2 to 29 — were severely underweight and had not bathed for months. The house was covered in filth and filled with the stench of human waste.

Louise Turpin was sentenced to life in prison. Photo / AP
Louise Turpin was sentenced to life in prison. Photo / AP

The children said they were beaten, caged and shackled if they did not obey their parents.

David Turpin, 57, had been an engineer for Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

Louise Turpin, 50, was listed as a housewife in a 2011 bankruptcy filing.

The teenage daughter escaped by jumping from a window. After a lifetime living in isolation, the 17-year-old did not know her address, the month of the year or what the word "medication" meant.

But she knew enough to punch 911 into a barely workable cellphone and began describing years of horrific abuse to a police dispatcher.

David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin with their 13 children. Photo / File
David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin with their 13 children. Photo / File

Deputies testified that the children said they were allowed to shower only once a year. They were mainly kept in their rooms except for meals, which had been reduced from three to one per day, a combination of lunch and dinner. The 17-year-old complained that she could no longer stomach peanut butter sandwiches — they made her gag.

The children were not allowed to play like normal children. Other than an occasional family trip to Las Vegas or Disneyland, they rarely left home. They slept during the day and were active a few hours at night.

Although the couple filed paperwork with the state to homeschool their children, learning was limited. The oldest daughter only completed third grade.

"We don't really do school. I haven't finished first grade," the 17-year-old said, according to Deputy Manuel Campos.

Investigators found that the couple's toddler had not been abused, but all of the children were hospitalised.

- AP