Special Reports

Social workers had worried that Josh Powell would harm 2 sons

That Josh Powell might harm his children one day lingered in the minds of state social workers even as they took the steps to reunite him with his two young sons.

Notes dropped into the voluminous records they kept on Powell show they were wary of Charlie and Braden’s father from the moment Pierce County sheriff’s deputies took the boys into protective custody Sept. 22.

“I don’t want to sound alarmist or alarm you, but this is a highly sensitive case, and we want to cover our bases for the ‘just in case’ possibilities,” state social worker Forest Jacobson wrote in a Sept. 29 email to the company chosen to supervise the court-ordered visits between Powell and his sons.

Jacobson had advice for visit supervisors: “911 is first call if there is any type of emergency, including fleeing with the kids.”

Jacobson’s intuition proved sadly prophetic.

Powell, 36, attacked his sons with a hatchet Feb. 5 before killing the three of them in a fiery explosion at his Graham-area rental home as visit supervisor Elizabeth Griffin-Hall, locked out of the house by Powell, haggled with a 911 operator.

Jacobson’s email was among nearly 1,000 pages of records on the Powell case the state Department of Social and Health Services released Friday. The News Tribune requested the documents under the state’s Public Records Act.

The documents included social worker reports, correspondence with law enforcement, Charlie and Braden’s medical records and the other minutia tracked by the state in custody matters.

They show Powell did everything he was asked to do to be permanently reunited with his sons, from attending counseling to convincing his supporters to take down a website critical of his in-laws.

Powell had been under stress since his wife, Susan Cox Powell, went missing in December 2009 from West Valley City, Utah, where the family then was living. Family and friends have not seen or heard from her since, and Utah law enforcement is investigating her disappearance as a homicide.

Josh Powell was considered a person of interest in her death, but he was never arrested or charged

He corresponded with Jacobson as late as Feb. 2, trying to set up a new visitation schedule with his sons, the records show.

They also detail how Powell was under increasing strain and scrutiny in the last months of his life and that social workers worried he might do something drastic.

Three days before he killed his sons, a pastor who’d been supervising some of Powell’s visits with Charlie, 7; and Braden, 5, told social workers he did not want to do so anymore.

“It is evident to us at this time that the investigation by police departments involved with the Susan Powell case are presently and actively building a criminal case against Josh,” the Rev. Timothy Atkins wrote. “We have spoken at length with Josh about this in recent days.”

And they show how his sons were caught up in the maelstrom of trauma and controversy surrounding their mother’s disappearance, and the suspicions swirling around their father.

Charlie seemed particularly affected, spouting anti-Mormon comments at school and often withdrawing into himself.

“Charlie did not smile at all during the interview,” social worker Brenda Severino wrote of an Oct. 10 interaction with the boy. “He’s very serious and mostly appears sad or flat.”

Powell underwent rigorous evaluations as part of the reunification process, the records show, including a psychological evaluation by psychologist James Manley in late October.

Manley found Powell had a good relationship with the boys and competent parenting skills.

“Across his supervised visits, Mr. Powell has demonstrated a strong foundation of parenting skills and an unwavering desire to parent his sons,” Manley wrote in the report.

But he noted Powell had a high degree of stress in his life and had trouble containing his negative talk about his in-laws and the Mormon Church in front of his Charlie and Braden.

Manley raised further concerns about Powell after viewing some of the 400 images of sexual and incestuous images found on Powell’s computer after it was seized in 2009 in connection with his wife’s disappearance.

Among the cartoon images were sexual themes involving well-known cartoon characters, including Spongebob Squarepants, the Simpsons and Superman.

Other drawings depicted incest, group sex and bondage. A series of computer-generated images included scenes of family members having sex with each other, including parents with children, according to Manley’s report.

Manley suggested in a Jan. 31 report that Powell undergo a psychosexual evaluation to “clarify his sexuality, parenting history and attitudes.”

He said that while more information was needed, “the reviewed images indicate someone’s fantasy-laden view of having sex with children. This is not a healthy parenting perception.”

On Feb. 1, Superior Court Judge Kathryn Nelson ordered Powell to undergo the psychosexual evaluation.

Manley also suggested counseling would help Powell come to terms with this wife’s disappearance.

Manley recommended ongoing, regular, supervised visits.

Powell received good reviews from the supervised visits he had with his sons, the records show.

He always used every minute of his time with the boys. He smiled at them, hugged them and made eye contact with them, according to reports filed by Griffin-Hall.

According to her reports, Powell often had activities planned, from building bug houses to carving a pumpkin to reading stories. He gave them juice, brought them lunch or made “beautiful” breakfasts.

Powell set boundaries for the boys and officiated squabbles between them.

“Dad is very attentive to the boys and listens carefully to their words and ideas,” Griffin-Hall wrote after an Oct. 23 visit.

Initially, the visits were at the Foster Care Resource Network. Powell was always waiting for Griffin Hall to arrive with the boys, who after a brief stay in foster care were living with their maternal grandparents, Chuck and Judy Cox of Puyallup.

By November, the visits, with the blessing of Jacobson and Griffin-Hall, had moved to Powell’s home near Graham. Griffin-Hall noted the home was clean and child friendly.

The boys were happy to see dad and showered him with hugs and kisses. They often ran from Griffin-Hall’s car to see their father.

It wasn’t always rosy.

During a visit Nov. 27, Griffin-Hall noted Braden told Powell, “They found Mommy in the desert.” When Powell asked the boys who said that, neither answered.

“Dad became agitated and turned red,” the report noted. “He asked the boys again and they did not respond. I changed the subject back to eating dessert.”

On Nov. 10, it appeared social workers were preparing to recommend the boys be returned to Powell on Jan. 19, the records show.

West Valley City police then notified them about the sexual images found on Powell’s computer, and that plan changed.

“Although the evidence does not support a finding of ‘founded’ for negligent treatment, factors exist that are a concern for risk,” according to a Nov. 30 assessment later prepared by social workers.

They classified that prospect as “moderately high.”

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644


Stacey Mulick: 253-597-8268


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