If there had been any indication of suicidal thoughts, or anything that we would have thought there was an intent to harm the children, we would have taken immediate action. —Sherry Hill, spokeswoman for Children's Administration, Department of Social and Health Services
SEATTLE — State authorities can expect tough questions about whether more might have been done to protect a missing Utah woman's two children, who died along with their father after authorities say he ignited his home in an inferno Sunday.
Josh Powell was a person of interest in his wife's disappearance. Why was he allowed to meet with his sons at all? Why weren't more precautions taken, such as requiring that supervised visits be at a neutral site rather than at his home?
The answers rest largely in that no concrete evidence has emerged publicly linking him with Susan Powell's disappearance, and Josh Powell was never arrested or charged in the case. Josh Powell had custody of the boys for nearly two years after his wife vanished. And it was only because his father — with whom Josh Powell and the boys lived — was arrested in a voyeurism and child pornography case last fall that the children were taken out of the home and placed with Susan's parents.
Sherry Hill, a spokeswoman for the Children's Administration at the Department of Social and Health Services, said state authorities work closely with courts to determine whether supervised visits should be allowed and whether they should be held at a parent's home or at a neutral site.
"If there had been any indication of suicidal thoughts, or anything that we would have thought there was an intent to harm the children, we would have taken immediate action," she said. "If we had thought that, we would have done what we could. I don't think there's anything else we could have done."
And as devastated as Susan's parents are to have lost her and now her sons, they aren't critical of how the custody case was handled, said their attorney, Steve Downing.
"They knew that legally he would probably have supervised visitation," Downing said. "It was their belief he had something to do with Susan's disappearance, and that ultimately he could harm the children. But they believed the state had listened to them and had taken appropriate measures to protect them. They don't know what more the state could have done."
Supervised visits are typically ordered to take place at a neutral site in cases of documented abuse or domestic violence, Downing said. Powell had been having supervised visits with the boys twice a week, three hours at a time, for about four months.
The court ordered a psychological evaluation of Josh Powell last October. After it was completed, the psychologist received information from police in West Valley City, Utah, about undisclosed materials found on his computer during a search in 2009. That material prompted the psychologist to recommend a psycho-sexual evaluation before Powell be given custody or expanded visitation rights.
For his part, Josh Powell had argued in court papers that it was unfair for his children to be removed from his care based on something his father had done. In supervised visits, twice a week for three hours apiece, he demonstrated his love of the boys and his competence as a caregiver, he insisted. He believed that a Child Protective Services investigation completed Nov. 30 clearing him of negligent treatment or maltreatment of his boys should have paved the way for their return home.
"No child wants to be taken from their parents and it is not reasonable to continue this process," he wrote in a court declaration last Wednesday. "At this point, it is only by bending and breaking the rules that anyone even tries to keep it going."
The judge disagreed, ordering the psycho-sexual evaluation.
Powell's attorney, Jeffrey Bassett, said Powell was extremely upset about the decision.
"The last conversation I had with him, we were looking to move forward, to comply with the evaluation and go from there," Bassett said. "This is a total shock."