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Revisit the mandate that abetted Josh Powell

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Aug. 4, 2012 at 5:58 pm with 2 Comments »
August 3, 2012 6:02 pm

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

Three words helped Josh Powell kill his two young boys five months ago: “least restrictive setting.”

The state Children’s Administration on Thursday released an internal review of its attempts to protect Charlie and Braden Powell, who ultimately died with their father in a gasoline fire he ignited in a Graham-area house.

On the whole, the social workers assigned to look after the 7- and 5-year-old come off looking good. They were alert to the possibility that Josh – a “person of interest” in the disappearance of his wife – would abuse his sons.

Josh had been living with the boys in the house of his own father, Steven. When investigators discovered in September that the elder Powell kept a large trove of pornography in the house, the Children’s Administration pounced and plucked Charlie and Braden out. The agency continued to track them closely right up to the moment their father killed them; Josh had to lock a supervisor out of the house before he set it on fire.

Josh knew how to play a rule-bound agency. He put on a grand show of doting on his boys. Caseworkers need hard evidence to separate children from parents, and this father knew how to make evidence invisible.

The review did pinpoint a blunder: The Children’s Administration initially had been holding the supervised visits between father and sons at safer places. It reportedly failed to formally consult with law enforcement in November, when it moved the visits to the house.

Whether formal consultation would have changed anything is an open question. The street-level police investigators watching Josh reportedly considered him a suspect in the disappearance of Susan Cox Powell, and they were reportedly sharing their suspicions with caseworkers.

But suspicions are not hard evidence. Police in West Valley, Utah – where Susan disappeared – did have hard evidence, but they weren’t sharing it for fear it would compromise their criminal case. They ultimately did share a little: pornographic images that Josh himself had possessed. That wasn’t going to save the boys, though: The emergence of the images set in motion the fierce scrutiny that appears to have driven him to his last, desperate act.

What might have saved them is a denial of the home visits. Josh was homicidal and may well have killed them somewhere else, but it would have been harder had they not walked into a house he’d meticulously turned into a firebomb.

The people at Children’s Administration felt compelled to allow visits at the house because state policy demands that parental visits be held in the least restrictive setting. When there’s no solid evidence that parents will harm children, that probably means home.

In this case, the “least restrictive” mandate overrode circumstantial evidence and strong suspicions that Josh was a wife-murderer.

Either the mandate itself or the application of it must be relaxed.

This isn’t about custody. It’s not about whether to allow separated parents to see their children. It’s about where those visits should take place. The instincts of multiple veteran professionals – even based on circumstantial evidence – should have been enough to keep Charlie and Braden out of a suspected killer’s house.

Leave a comment Comments → 2
  1. Wrong. DSHS and CPS need to do objective fact finding instead of subjective. The standards are not the problem – the training of the line workers is weak and the support of upper management is absent as far as I can tell.

    If upper management would support workers declining to get involved when there is NO physical evidence, a lot less damage would be done. In the Powell matter, the children were used as proxies to get at a presumed wife killer.

    Proxies always pay the price for the benefit of others. That is what happened here. People or officials who use proxies are cowards. (and if you extrapolate that to include biased judges, I won’t disagree)

  2. The dshs failed, the 911 dispatcher failed, even the always inept puyallup city hall failed offering a cemetery plot adjacent to the murdered boys.

    When real taxpayers hurl mud at government employees, more often than not, it is fully deserved from such issues as the Powell case.

    Talented management and decision makers work in business. Many of those who think they are talented, but are not, become government employees and leaders. The Powell debacle illustrated what then happens.

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