The Powells

As the children’s justice coordinator at WSCADV, I’ve spent years partnering with the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) on how to address children’s safety when domestic violence is an issue. I’ve worked with some wonderful people, and we’ve accomplished some great things together. And we have a long way to go. The work is incredibly hard because so much is at stake. We all want what’s best for kids. No one wants to tear kids from their parents if we don’t have to. And sometimes we have to.

DSHS has released the report from their Child Fatality Review on Charlie and Braden Powell’s horrific murders by their father, Josh Powell. This report is supposed to help all of us—community members, child welfare workers, police officers, judges, and policy makers—understand how these boys lost their lives while the state was in charge of them, and what we need to do to avoid such tragedies in the future.

The headline DSHS put out on their press release implied nothing could have been done to change the outcome (“Despite solid work by all involved, nobody could anticipate that Joshua Powell would murder his sons”), but the report doesn’t actually say that. It says the committee “did not draw conclusions about whether any actions by Children’s Administration, law enforcement, or the court could have prevented Mr. Powell’s actions.” Having served on commissions, committees, and task forces, I can tell you that this is committee-speak for “even after days of discussion, we did not reach consensus: some of us absolutely thought this was preventable, and some of us didn’t.”

The good news is the committee did come up with 4 recommendations; concrete steps to take based on what they learned. How can we not do everything in our power to make sure these happen?

Most of the press coverage has focused on the first recommendation, which encourages social workers to communicate more with police when there’s an active criminal investigation. In this case, police were clear that Josh Powell posed a potential danger to his kids. The report notes that if they had known that he was being given visitation in his own home they would have expressed “concerns.” Child welfare workers and the visitation supervisor, however, apparently did not share these concerns. The visitation supervisor has said she did not have a feeling of “danger, alert, murderer” about Josh Powell. Case notes pointed to Josh’s compliance with all orders and appropriate parenting during his supervised visits. (Please. Is it really news that abusers and murderers can be socially appropriate when it serves them?) Should social workers talk to police (even if they’re not required to) so they have a chance to give their input? Absolutely. But let’s get to the heart of the problem: until DSHS (and the general public) sees that the pattern of violence and coercion a parent uses against their intimate partner is a huge factor in figuring out if kids are safe, they’re going to keep missing the point, and kids will be endangered as a result.

It is so hard for me to understand how this connection is not obvious. How can someone think: “Yes, this person is probably responsible for his wife’s disappearance—it’s likely he killed her and hid her body—but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good dad.”? (I know, he wasn’t charged with murder (yet), but everyone involved knew that he was the only person under suspicion.) The competent and well-meaning social workers assigned to this case didn’t make the connection that the likely murder of his wife (and the possibility that a pattern of abuse existed before the murder) should be a factor in thinking about how much access he should have to his kids, and where.

Fortunately, the Child Fatality Review Committee did see this connection and found that DSHS had not trained its workers adequately on domestic violence (for some reason, this has received virtually no press attention). The committee noted that DSHS has a policy of screening all intakes for domestic violence (asking, “Has anyone used or threatened to use physical violence against an adult in the home?”). In this case, that question was answered “No.” Because of this, social workers did not follow DSHS policy to conduct an in-depth domestic violence assessment. The committee found that enough information was available to answer this question “Yes.”

What difference would the domestic violence assessment have made? It would have prompted social workers to gather more information—from friends, relatives, or court records. They could have learned from Susan’s friends and family that they had been concerned about physical violence as well as Josh’s controlling tactics like hiding her car keys and attempting to deny her access to bank accounts. When police told social workers they thought Josh had killed Susan, but they just didn’t have enough information to arrest him, the assessment could have helped them use this information to assess danger to the children.

The assessment also looks at the impact of domestic violence on the children. It helps social workers see how a parent’s actions (like how Josh abused their mother and collected child pornography) can indicate their ability to think through how their choices are impacting their kids and if they are capable of putting their children’s needs ahead of their own. And understanding domestic violence means realizing that when a batterer starts losing control of their family (like when Josh began losing his custody battle to Susan’s parents), it often means increased danger.

WSCADV was thrilled when our partnership with DSHS resulted in their implementing the Social Worker’s Practice Guide to Domestic Violence. However, DSHS did not take effective action to ensure that every social worker had basic competencies around domestic violence, how it relates to child safety, and the changes in investigation and case planning suggested in the Practice Guide.

I don’t think this case was about an individual failure on the part of the social workers involved. In my opinion, this is about our systems failing to recognize that we have to look at a history of domestic violence when trying to figure out if a person is a safe parent. The fact that DSHS has a policy in place with the Practice Guide is a great start. But their failure to fully implement it by providing training to support its use has to be addressed. If it had been, would we be telling a different story about Josh, Charlie, and Braden Powell today? I will go out on a limb and say I certainly think so.