TACOMA, Washington — While acknowledging that the court "feels immense sorrow" for the losses the family of Chuck and Judy Cox have endured over the past five years, a federal court on Tuesday ruled there was no way to know that Josh Powell would murder his two young sons.
"This court cannot undo the merciless murder of the Powell children or the devastating effect their loss had on their extended family. The court knows that a very troubled father killed his two sons before taking his own life, the reasons for which belie compassion and understanding. The court also knows that family members worried about this horrific potentiality — the fact that it was realized compounding the sadness and outrage felt by all.
"But the court cannot exercise the luxury of hindsight when judging those who attempted to keep the children safe for failing to do so at the hands of a murderer," U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton wrote in his decision.
In the 29-page decision released Tuesday, Leighton dismissed a federal lawsuit filed by the Cox family against the Washington Department of Social and Health Services.
On Feb. 5, 2012, Josh Powell murdered his two young sons, 7-year-old Charlie and his 5-year-old brother Braden, and committed suicide by torching his rental house in Washington. The horrific events unfolded during what was supposed to be a court-ordered supervised visit with a social services worker.
The young boys ran ahead of the worker, and by the time she got to the door Josh Powell had locked her out. As the worker tried to call someone for help, she could smell gasoline being poured throughout the house.
Six months after their deaths, the department's Child Fatality Review Team released a 12-page report regarding the deaths of Charlie and Braden Powell. The report suggested that communication between police and social workers dealing with the Powells could have been better, and recommended more domestic violence training for the state's social workers. But ultimately, it said, "nobody could have anticipated that Joshua Powell would murder his two sons."
Josh Powell was the husband of missing Utah mother Susan Cox Powell. As Leighton noted in his ruling, the tragedy surrounding Charlie and Braden ultimately began with "the infamous disappearance of Susan Cox Powell. Her husband, Joshua, is suspected of murdering her."
Chuck and Judy Cox, Susan Powell's parents, filed a negligence lawsuit against the Washington Department of Social and Health Services claiming the organization could have done more to prevent their grandsons' deaths and should have recognized how dangerous Josh Powell was.
Cox had previously said he did not blame the social worker who was with the children that day. However, he believes that the department shouldn't have allowed the visit at all, noting that it came just four days after a judge denied a motion to return full custody of the children to Josh Powell and ordered him to undergo a psychosexual evaluation because of pornography found on his computers.
But the federal judge ruled Tuesday that the social workers were tasked "with walking a razor’s edge between helping Joshua to develop the techniques to better parent his children and protecting the best interests of his children under the confines of a judicial order."
Furthermore, the judge ruled that the department did keep the courts updated on what was happening both with Josh Powell and at the nearby home of his father, Steven Powell, who was eventually convicted of videotaping young neighbor girls from his house. A large amount of pornography, including voyeuristic nude pictures of Susan Powell, were also found in his home.
"The social workers did not create or expose the children to a situation more harmful than where the social workers encountered them — Steven’s home," the federal judge ruled. "The boys lived with their grandfather, a voyeur and pornography addict, and their father, a narcissist suspected of murdering his wife. The social workers removed the children from that environment and commenced dependency proceedings, stripping Joshua of custody."
The judge said that taking the boys to a court-ordered supervised visit "did not expose them to a danger greater than what they would have faced had the social workers not intervened in the boys’ care but had instead left them in Steven’s home and Joshua’s custody."
Leighton conceded that social workers could have picked a more secure, neutral location for the court-ordered visit.
"Arguably, the social workers may have drawn an inference from gut feelings and speculations that a substantial risk of serious harm to the children existed during visitation generally — given the common supposition that Joshua murdered Susan," he wrote. "But no proof that Powell posed an objectively substantial risk of harm to his sons during supervised visitation existed from which the social workers could have drawn these subjective conclusions."
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