OLYMPIA, Wash. — Social workers tasked with protecting the children of Josh Powell did not consult with law enforcement or explore his potentially violent past before allowing him to host supervised visits at his home, a panel found Thursday.
Powell violently killed his kids during one such visit earlier this year. Now a lawsuit looms because of the state's handling of the case.
Thursday's report, issued by a task force convened after the deaths, concluded that the Washington Department of Social and Health Services should "make concerted efforts" to check with detectives prior to making changes in parent-child contacts when there is an active investigation. Authorities have been investigating the 2009 disappearance of Powell's wife, Susan Powell, from the couple's Utah home.
Josh Powell had been locked in a custody dispute at the time of the killings, and a judge had recently ordered him to undergo an intensive psycho-sexual evaluation. The child fatality review committee also concluded that social workers should immediately reassess visitation policies whens someone is ordered to undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation.
Denise Revels Robinson, assistant secretary for DSHS Children's Administration, said the recommendations provided by the committee "will be of great help in our ongoing efforts to improve our practice in keeping children safe."
"The violent death of any child, especially at the hands of a parent, is always a tragedy," Robinson said. "But few of us who have served in child welfare have had to deal with such a horrific experience as the loss of Charlie and Braden."
To kill his children, Josh Powell locked his front door in the face of a social worker, then used a hatchet on his boys inside and torched the home to kill himself and the two children.
Anne Bremner, a lawyer who has represented the family of Susan Cox Powell, said a notice of claim will be filed Friday – a procedural step that allows settlement talks before a full lawsuit is filed. The claim will be filed on behalf of Susan Powell, and a guardian ad litem has been appointed to represent her interests since she is missing.
Bremner said the family wants to see changes in how the state handles these cases, such as less focus on trying to immediately reunify parents with their children. She said Thursday's findings bolster their case against the state.
"A report that's critical of what happened is a good start," Bremner said. A DSHS spokesman declined comment because the notice of claim had not been filed.
Social workers were not legally required to consult with law enforcement in a situation like the Powell case, the review committee said. And the panelists did provide some praise for the people involved in the case, saying the work sometimes exceeded acceptable standards for child welfare practices and procedures.
"The conduct and interaction of professionals involved in this case demonstrated the highest concern for the children's health, safety and welfare," the committee wrote.
But while the social workers did follow the law, there were signs that should have led them to be more vigilant, the panel found.
In one finding, the committee concluded that the disappearance of Susan Powell should have prompted the workers to further explore the potential of domestic violence.
Detectives in Utah had shared little about their Powell investigation and had never even publicly labeled Josh Powell a suspect in the case. That was despite the fact that authorities found blood in the family home and a hand-written note in which she expressed fear about her husband and her potential demise.
Josh Powell always maintained his innocence and said he had taken their boys, then 2 and 4, on a midnight camping trip in freezing temperatures the night she disappeared. Investigators had found a gas can, tarps and a shovel in Josh Powell's vehicle shortly after the investigation began. One of the children told investigators that his mother had gone on the camping trip but did not come home with them.
Authorities eventually disclosed to a Washington state court that incestuous images had been found on Josh Powell's computer – a finding that prompted the psycho-sexual evaluation shortly before the killings.
The child fatality panel said that the information Utah authorities had kept private could have helped reassess the length, location and supervision of Powell's visitation rights.