Study: Gaps in process that led up to boys’ murders

1:51 pm August 9th, 2012

Social workers should have talked to police and taken other steps before allowing two brothers to visit their father at his home in Graham where he murdered them, according to a review of how the state handled the boys’ custody case.

The committee, issuing a report last week after its study that began in April, concluded that a police investigation of Josh Powell in connection with the disappearance of his wife was enough to raise concerns about the potential for domestic violence in the Powell family.

But the committee also concluded that all agencies and individuals involved with the boys’ case demonstrated sufficient concern for the children’s safety and welfare, and that nobody could have anticipated the killings.

The Child Fatality Review team was appointed in February by the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) in response to the murders Feb. 5 of Charlie Powell, 7, and Braden Powell, 5. Authorities say their father locked a social worker out of the house, then attacked the boys with a hatchet and started a fast-burning fire that killed all three of them during the scheduled, state-approved visit with him at the house he was renting.

Children’s Administration, a division of DSHS, is required by law to conduct a review when deaths or near-death injuries of children are suspected to be caused by abuse or neglect and if the children received services from Children’s Administration in the previous 12 months.

The Powell boys were in the foster care of their Puyallup-area grandparents while courts were deciding whether the siblings could be returned to their father.

Powell and the boys moved from Utah to Pierce County following the disappearance in 2009 of Susan Powell, his wife and mother of the boys. who grew up in the Puyallup area. She is believed by authorities in Utah to have been murdered, though her body hasn’t been found. Suspicion focused increasingly on Josh Powell, who refused to cooperate with police in their investigation.

A Pierce County Superior Court judge last September gave custody of the boys to Children’s Administration and assigned them to live in foster care with Chuck and Judy Cox, the parents of Susan Powell.

Josh Powell, who was directed by the same judge to receive a psychological evaluation, tried to regain custody of the children. Several days before the deaths, the court ordered him to undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation and kept the children in their grandparents’ custody, with supervised visits still allowed.

Social workers observed “appropriate parenting” by Josh Powell during earlier visits with his sons, the committee reported.

But the committee also found gaps in the way it believes decisions could have been made about Powell’s access to his sons. The committee noted that even though Children’s Administration wasn’t required to – and didn’t – consult with police about moving supervised visits to Powell’s home, such discussions can be “beneficial” in a case such as this in which the parent who’s involved is also the subject of “an open criminal investigation.” Police could provide informatin “that might affect decisions” about the length and location of visits and the need for supervision, the committee stated.

Detectives involved in the criminal investigation of Powell told the committee that they weren’t aware that supervised visits had moved to his home. If the detectives had known, they would have had “concerns,” although they believe decisions about visitation are up to Children’s Administration and courts, the committee reported.

In its official recommendations, the committee urged Children’s Administration to:

• Consult with police before making changes in chilid/parent contact when that parent is under a criminal investigation.

• Reassess parent/child contact before the next scheduled visit after the parent is ordered by courts to undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation.

• Provide ongoing training for social workers in the assessment of risk to children of domestic violence.

Before living in the house in Graham, Josh Powell and his sons lived with his father, Steven Powell, in the latter’s home near Puyallup. Josh Powell and the boys moved after Steven Powell was arrested and later convicted on voyeurism charges. Evidence against the elder Powell included photographs of neighbor girls that were taken without their knowledge while they were in various stages of undress in their home next door to Steven Powell’s residence.

The committee, assigned to find any ways of improving procedures to preventn similar tragedies in the future, met for a combined 24 hours over three days in April and June. During that perioid, the panel asked DSHS for more time to finish its work.

The committee members – including a state legislator from Eatonville (Sen. Randi Becker), DSHS officials, and representatives of the criminal justice system – interviewed seven people who had worked on the Powell boys’ case and reviewed more than 2,700 pages of documents, according to DSHS.

Denise Revels-Robinson, Children’s Administration assistant secretary, praised the committee’s work.

“Few of us who have served in child welfare have had to deal with such a horrific experience as the loss of Charlie and Braden,” Revels-Robinson said. “The thorough, thoughtful examination and recommendations provided by the committee members will be of great help in our ongoing efforts to improve our practice in keeping children safe.”

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