Social workers tasked with protecting Josh Powell’s two young sons might have kept the children out of his Graham home had they had more access to the investigation into his wife’s disappearance, a state review panel found Thursday.
The 13-page report recommended that the state Department of Social and Health Services “make concerted efforts” to check with detectives when there is an active investigation to get information related to a child’s safety before changing parent-child visitations.
It also states that, in the Powell case, the social workers could not have known of his murderous intentions.
Utah authorities were investigating Powell in the 2009 disappearance of his wife, Susan Cox Powell, but had not publicly called him a suspect.
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Washington social workers were unaware of certain evidence – blood found in the Powells’ Utah home and a note written by Susan Powell expressing fear that her husband might kill her – when they agreed to move supervised visits with the children from public places to Josh Powell’s house.
“Everyone in the world was aware that Josh Powell could have been involved in the disappearance of his wife,” DSHS spokesman Thomas Shapley said Thursday. “What we didn’t know was the extent of the information.”
When a social worker brought the boys, Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5, for a supervised visit Feb. 5, Josh Powell shut the front door on her. He then attacked his sons with a hatchet and torched the house with them inside, killing the three of them.
At the time of the deaths, Josh Powell was locked in a custody dispute with his wife’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, who were caring for the children at the couple’s Puyallup home.
Pierce County Superior Court Judge Kathryn Nelson had recently ordered Josh Powell to undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation and polygraph test after learning that Utah police had discovered hundreds of animated pornographic images depicting children and adults on his computer in Utah.
That wasn’t what lost Powell his sons though.
Charlie and Braden were put in state custody in September after investigators found inappropriate photos of neighbor girls and Susan Powell in the South Hill home where the kids were living with their father and grandfather, Steven Craig Powell. The elder Powell later was convicted of voyeurism in connection with the photos.
After the boys’ deaths, a committee comprised of 12 law enforcement and child experts reviewed more than 2,700 pages of documents and interviewed the seven workers involved in the case before writing its report and recommendations.
The committee’s suggestions included officials reassessing parent-child contact if the parent is set to undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation, and providing better training for social workers on domestic violence cases that could affect child safety.
That training has already started, said Sharon Gilbert, deputy director for Children’s Administration.
A social worker missed an opportunity to probe deeper into Josh Powell’s alleged violent past by marking “no” on a questionnaire about whether anyone had used or threatened to use violence against another adult in the family. Checking “yes” would have enabled social workers to further probe potential violence in the Powell family.
Despite indications that social workers could have been more vigilant, the panel praised employees for sometimes exceeding standards related to child welfare policies and procedures, and noted those involved in the Powell case “demonstrated the highest concern for the children’s health, safety and welfare.” The panel and DSHS concluded social workers could not have known Josh Powell intended to kill his sons.
But Seattle attorney Anne Bremner, who represents Chuck and Judy Cox, said neither the report’s findings nor recommendations went far enough.
DSHS officials had ample evidence to recommend that Josh Powell not have visitation with his children.
When a parent is accused of a violent crime, the state’s emphasis on “reunification of the family at all costs” is the wrong approach, she said.
“It should be the best interest of the child – period,” Bremner said. “If someone is accused of killing his wife – or making her disappear – he shouldn’t get the kids. It’s not rocket science. It’s common sense.”
Josh Powell always denied killing his wife. He claimed he took their boys, then 2 and 4, on a midnight camping trip in freezing weather the night Susan Powell disappeared.
Staff writer Adam Lynn contributed to this report.