How the state monitored the Powell boys

Staff writerFebruary 6, 2012 

The woman who took Charlie and Braden Powell on their last drive was a visitation supervisor who worked for Foster Care Resource Network, one of hundreds of businesses that contract with the state to provide social services.

She had known Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5, since November.

The children were under the state’s supervision not because their mother, Susan Cox Powell was missing, and their father, Josh Powell, was a person of interest in the case. They were there because they were living with their father and paternal grandfather, Steve Powell, when he was arrested on suspicion of possessing child pornography.

After his arrest, the children were put in foster care for several weeks until the courts cleared them to live with their maternal grandparents, Chuck and Judy Cox of Puyallup.

In all that family tragedy, their visit supervisor’s primary concern was their welfare.

Every Sunday, she drove them to see their father, supervised the four-hour visits, then returned them to their court-approved home. Each time, she took notes and filed a report that case managers and the court considered as they tried to figure out what was best for the kids.

It’s the kind of work the state Department of Social and Health Services’ Children’s Administration relies on as it serves some 10,000 children in foster care statewide. More broadly, it is the kind of work that DSHS relies on to serve people who are vulnerable because of age, sickness or disability.

It could not be done without the businesses, either for-profit or non-profit who contract with DSHS, said Sherry Hill, communications director for the Children’s Administration.

Wherever state health and social policies touch the ground, thousands of contractors are there to put them into practice.

Known as “chore services employees” they bathe frail seniors, clean their houses and shop for their groceries. Job trainers teach people with disabilities the skills they need to become independent.

The list of contractors runs into the thousands and includes non-profits as established with the state as Catholic Community Services and as recent as Foster Care Resource Network, which contracted to provide visitation supervision in 2009.

“We have something like 1,600 contracts in the Children’s Administration alone,” Hill said.

Among hundreds of services, she said, they teach parenting classes, provide counseling services and visitation supervision.

Even while they lived with their grandparents the Powell boys were under state supervision. They, like other foster kids, were eligible for medical and other social services, provided, in many cases, by contractors.

Those contractors must meet minimum standards, bid for the jobs and carry insurance, Hill said.

“There are a lot of things we do take a look at,” she said, and there will be more. The state will be switching to performance-based contracting to measure how well contractors do the job.

It already has job standards for the people who do the work.

To be a candidate for the job of driving foster kids to visits, supervised or not, they must pass a background check, have finished high school or earned a GED, have first aid certificates and at least a year’s experience working with children before they are eligible for 20 hours of training.

The woman who drove the boys had more, Hill said.

“This particular worker had some good social work experience,” Hill said. “She was a visit supervisor.”

The court had assigned Josh Powell’s visits with his sons to the strictest of three classes. On the low tiers, visits can be overnight, or for a few hours at a time, but unsupervised.

Powell was never allowed alone with his boys.

“The person handling the visit must be within sight and sound of all parties at all times,” said Hill. “They must be readily available for intervention.”

The Foster Care Resource Network employee had been managing that for the boys since early November, and got along well with them and the family, Hill said.

For a time, the visits were in a neutral place, Chuck Cox told The News Tribune. Then Josh Powell moved to a rented home near Graham.

“The parent, the social worker, supervisor, manager and everyone involved with the case would have discussed the visitation and what to recommend to the court,” Hill said. “My understanding is they had ordered visitation in the home, and it was supposed to be supervised.”

None of the decision makers imagined Powell would blow it up.

On Sunday, the boys’ visit supervisor tried to keep them safe, but could not. The boys ran ahead of her and, as she headed for the door, Powell locked it her face. She pounded on it, tried other ways to get in, then called for help.

Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said evidence indicates Powell had rigged the house to explode and, even if she had come in with the boys arrived, she could not have stopped him.

Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677
kathleen.merryman@thenewstribune.com
blog.thenewstribune.com/street

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