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.