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Report: Washington social workers needed more Powell information from West Valley police

Published: Wednesday, July 1 2015 3:26 p.m. MDT

Family photos of Susan Powell along with Charlie and Braden. (, Family Photo) Family photos of Susan Powell along with Charlie and Braden. (, Family Photo)

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A new report concludes social workers could have made more informed decisions about Josh Powell's sons had they received more information from West Valley police about the investigation into his missing wife, Susan Cox Powell.

That information could have either been shared between police and social workers in Washington or social workers could have made more of an effort to seek it out, according to the report.

However, even with additional information, the committee that issued the report determined that "nobody could have anticipated that Joshua Powell would murder his two sons."

“There wasn’t anybody who had dropped the ball or someone made a mistake or an oversight that had happened,” panel member King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Richard Anderson told the Seattle Times. “There are some people who do terrible things in life. The ‘Batman’ incident (the theater shootings in Colorado) is a perfect example. You can’t explain things like this. I think Mr. Powell had this in his mind and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it.”

Chuck and Judy Cox hug at their home in Puyallup, Wash., Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Chuck and Judy Cox hug at their home in Puyallup, Wash., Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

A much anticipated 12-page report on the deaths of Susan Powell's two sons was released Thursday in Washington.

While the report from the Washington Department of Social and Health Services' Child Fatality Review Team did not directly point any fingers blaming people for Charlie and Braden Powell's deaths, it suggested that communication between social workers and police could have been better. It also suggested that social workers could improve on both seeking information from police and receiving domestic violence training.

The committee did not draw conclusions about whether any actions by social workers, police or the court could have prevented Josh Powell from killing his children and himself.

However, in a prepared statement summarizing the report, the committee found that DSHS "could have evaluated (Josh Powell) differently for domestic violence and not allowed in-home visits with the boys," and that it would have been beneficial for DSHS to have more information about the West Valley police investigation into Powell.

The home of Josh Powell in Graham, Wash., Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) The home of Josh Powell in Graham, Wash., Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

"Other information that could have aided DSHS and law enforcement in decision making was sealed in Utah records as law enforcement officers in that state continued to investigate the disappearance of Powell’s wife, who remains missing," the fatality review committee wrote. "The committee noted the importance of law enforcement and the department working jointly to share decisions concerning visitation and evaluation of an evolving child dependency situation."

The committee noted that when Charlie and Braden Powell were removed from Steven Powell's home, where Josh and the boys had been living, "At the request of (West Valley police), Pierce County law enforcement did not provide information to Department of Social and Health Services - Children's Administration staff regarding the Utah investigation into the disappearance of Susan Powell."

Charlie Powell, 7 (, Debbie Caldwell) Charlie Powell, 7 (, Debbie Caldwell)

Chuck Cox, the boy's maternal grandfather, said Thursday he was not surprised by the committee's findings and said he and his wife warned social workers and others that their son-in-law was capable of horrible things.

"It's what I would have expected. I think they have ignored the primary concerns and they need to give themselves a pass on some level, because I agree that no one — no normal thinking person — could understand a person as messed up as Josh was. A person who could do that to their own children. It's hard for rational people to understand irrational thoughts like that," Cox said.

"But the idea that they listened to us and they took everything and they weighed it ... we warned them. The idea that no one could foresee this happening ... We saw it happening," he said.

"We warned DHS. We warned West Valley City police. We warned Pierce County. We warned every social worker we saw. We told them this was possible. And because we're grandparents and connected and knew this situation, our concerns were dismissed — considered and dismissed.

Josh Powell, the husband of missing Utah woman Susan Powell, listens during a court hearing regarding the custody of his two sons, Sept. 28, 2011, in Tacoma, Wash. (Ted S. Warren, Associated Press) Josh Powell, the husband of missing Utah woman Susan Powell, listens during a court hearing regarding the custody of his two sons, Sept. 28, 2011, in Tacoma, Wash. (Ted S. Warren, Associated Press)

"And obviously we were correct and they should never have been dismissed."

West Valley police did share some information when it became evident that the Powell children were on a course for reunification with their father at the beginning of the year. DSHS spokesman Thomas Shapley said the information about what had been found on Josh Powell's laptop prevented Powell from having his children returned to his custody.

"I will say that when we did get information about the images on Josh Powell's computer that that information went quickly to the child psychologist and the court and the court ordered the dependency continue. When that hearing on Feb. 1 had been called as requested by Josh Powell's attorney, the purpose of that hearing was to see if the court would return the children to his custody. Everyone I talked to indicated that's what would have happened had we not received the information from West Valley City (police)," he said.

Graham Fire Department battles a fire after an explosion at Josh Powell's Washington state residence that killed Josh and his two sons, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012. (Stephenie Gallman, For the Deseret News) Graham Fire Department battles a fire after an explosion at Josh Powell's Washington state residence that killed Josh and his two sons, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012. (Stephenie Gallman, For the Deseret News)

Josh Powell, the husband of West Valley mother Susan Powell — who has been missing for 2 ½ years and is presumed dead — murdered his two sons, 7-year-old Charlie and 5-year-old Braden, on Feb. 5 at his rented Graham, Wash., home. Josh Powell was also considered the main suspect in his wife's disappearance, although West Valley police went out of their way to avoid ever publicly calling him a suspect. From a legal perspective, that information couldn't be used against him in custody hearings.

Charlie and Braden had been living with their grandparents, Chuck and Judy Cox, in their Puyallup, Wash., home since Sept 22, 2011, when a court ruled it would be OK for the children to stay there. The move came after the Pierce County Sheriff's Office removed them from their paternal grandfather Steven Powell's home, where the children and Josh were living, after Steven Powell was arrested for voyeurism.

On Feb. 5, 2012, a social worker had just arrived at Josh Powell's rental house for a weekly supervised visit. The children ran ahead of her and got inside the house first. By the time she got to the door, Josh Powell locked her out. A short time later, Powell took a hatchet to his sons before igniting his gasoline-soaked house, creating an inferno.

The murders came four days after a Washington court denied returning Powell's children to him full-time and instead ordered him to undergo a psychosexual evaluation after it was revealed that West Valley police had earlier discovered cartoon pornography depicting incest on a laptop seized from his Utah house.

Even before Thursday's report was issued, many others have questioned whether enough was done by Washington officials to protect the boys and whether enough information was shared between police, welfare officials and the courts.

Police investigating Susan Powell's disappearance did have some communication with social workers in Washington, "and officers told social workers that they believed Mr. Powell had killed his wife," the report states.

However, the fatality review committee said most of the communication between police and DSHS "generally consisted of law enforcement expressing an opinion as to Mr. Powell's involvement in Susan Powell's disappearance."

"The committee learned the law enforcement evidence gathered related to Susan Powell's disappearance would have raised specific concerns for the children, but that information was not made available to Children's Administration prior to children's death," the report states. "Information that law enforcement in Utah had, which was unavailable to Children's Administration, could have been used in assessing the need for services, and the structure of any contact between Mr. Powell and his children."

The report also found there was "sufficient information" by police that social workers could have used to launch a deeper investigation into domestic violence issues in the Powell home.

"The committee acknowledged information in the sealed warrant received after the children's death provided greater detail about the disappearance of Susan Powell, but that information was unavailable to Children's Administration at the time decisions were being made," the report states.

That warrant, prepared by West Valley police, was released in Washington because it was used to help prosecutors in Steven Powell's voyeurism trial justify the search of his home. West Valley police asked a Utah judge to seal all of their records involving the Powell case and have continued to fight efforts by the Cox family and others to release any documents or information involving their investigation.

West Valley police issued a statement late Thursday saying investigators placed an emphasis on the welfare and safety of the Powell children.

"At no time did the West Valley City Police Department receive any indication that Josh Powell would murder his two sons. Josh is solely responsible for his horrific actions back in February of this year and individually responsible for the murders of Charlie and Braden."

The statement said West Valley police "communicated regularly" with Washington authorities about the welfare of the two boys. "Information determined to be pertinent to the boys' health, safety and welfare was released by this department when it was appropriate. This release of pertinent information included a petition to the court for release of specific evidence related to the children’s welfare."

The Washington report did not make any conclusions about whether DSHS would have done anything differently had social workers been provided with more information from West Valley police.

However, the committee did find that a "lack of training on best practices regarding domestic violence" and the complexity of the case may have contributed "to the lack of further exploration of domestic violence in this case."

Police in Washington have said they believe Powell wasn't really living in his rental home but only used it as a front for his home visitations.

When Josh Powell originally requested his visitations be moved away from the Children's Administration offices, DSHS did consider the impact his visitations were having on others in the building because of the case's high profile, the report states.

Powell's request to move his supervised visits to his rental home were approved after officials determined his previous visitations had been well structured and positive. This decision was made by DSHS based on a Washington law that says family support visitations happen "in the least restrictive environment ... absent any safety concerns," according to the review panel's report.

However, the report also found that law enforcement was not consulted when making this decision, though the committee also noted that that was not a requirement. But consulting police when there is an ongoing investigation into a parent also involved in a custody dispute "may be beneficial."

The fatality committee said it talked about whether social workers should take the time to reassess a parent's "emotional stability" when rulings such as the one delivered against Josh Powell on Feb. 1 are handed down.

Cox said it was he who provided the divorce files of Steven and Terri Powell to DSHS, police and court officials as evidence of Josh Powell's psychological issues.

"There was a psychological profile in that information of Josh, at an early age, that he had the capability for violence. So, all that wasn't just our gut feeling that we told them he could do this. We had given them solid information to follow up on that they ignored or they dismissed," he said.

"I understand that a logical, sane, rational person, it's very difficult for them to understand the irrational thoughts of someone like Josh Powell, but that's their job. To keep the children safe. That's their job as DSHS and they failed and the court system failed."

Kiirsi Hellewell, Susan Powell's best friend, said both states bear responsibility for the deaths.

"I think that there's things both states could have done. But I really think Washington should not have gone by the letter of the law and said, 'Well, Josh hasn't been arrested and there isn't a big reason to keep him from his children.' But there was a big reason: because his wife disappeared and he would not answer any questions or cooperate with police," she said.

"To me, it made it look like he had something to do with it. So if he murdered his wife he was capable of murdering his children."

A fatality review team is selected for every DSHS case that involves a death. The 12-member team for the Powell children included a prosecutor for King County, Wash., Washington state lawmakers, attorneys, police, child welfare advocates and a psychologist.

DSHS officials thanked the review committee for its report.

"The violent death of any child, especially at the hands of a parent, is always a tragedy. 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. The thorough, thoughtful examination and recommendations provided by the committee members will be of great help in our ongoing efforts to improve our practice in keeping children safe," said DSHS Children’s Administration assistant secretary Denise Revels Robinson.

The review committee noted in the report that the Powell case was complex and "challenging" for DSHS because it involved two law enforcement agencies in separate states and sharing information between all three agencies.

Report from the the Washington Department of Social and Health Services' Child Fatality Review Team

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