Lunch at Nordstrom

Our executive director’s  first job at a domestic violence agency was at New Beginnings in Seattle. On Wednesday, she was invited to speak at their benefit lunch at Nordstrom. Here is the speech she gave at this event.  

New Beginnings is my alma mater, and I mean that in all seriousness. While I could say, simply, that my first domestic violence “job” was at New Beginnings, what is more important to say is that my education about domestic violence, my learning about the impact of violence in the lives of women and girls, my commitment to ending violence—perhaps not in my lifetime, but most definitely in my son’s lifetime—my trust that our collective humanity will prevail, and my gratitude for those moments when survivors experience justice and freedom and hope . . . all of that is rooted for me at New Beginnings, when I was hired 30 years ago for the graveyard shift (which I believe is now called the “sunrise” shift).

To say that the times have changed, and that New Beginnings is a different organization now, would be a tremendous understatement. The stories about our early days of working 35-hour shifts in a dilapidated house are best told over cocktails, but that formative time is the backdrop of my remarks today.

I have the privilege now of the long view. In 1982, we did not imagine that domestic violence would be everyone’s business. I had no idea that, one day, I would be in the flagship Nordstrom and, I should say, wearing an outfit purchased at Nordstrom, talking with hundreds of concerned and supportive people about what WE can do to stop domestic violence. In 1982, there were no events. There was no money. There was nothing like this.

For me, the past 30 years have been both challenging and deeply rewarding.  I have witnessed the worst and best of human behavior. I carry with me the names and faces and stories of brutality, the lists of the dead, the courtroom proceedings, the fear and grief and rage. But I also carry the courage of women, the pride and love of mothers, the resilient laughter of children, and the voices of men who call for a better manhood.

I try to hold all of it. Not one and then the other. All of it. All of the time. I don’t think of it as a burden. No. I think of it as a privilege and a promise.

In this country, we now have over 3,000 organizations that provide support for domestic violence survivors. We have state and federal laws that make domestic violence a crime and that authorize important funding for shelters and other community programs. We have innovative school curricula that teach young people about healthy relationships. We have thousands of advocates and tens of thousands of allies who work hard to save lives and change communities. There is a great deal to be proud of, and yet . . .

And yet. On February 5th of this year, Josh Powell killed his 2 sons, 7-year- old Charlie and 5-year-old Braden, and then killed himself. Josh Powell’s estranged wife, Susan Cox Powell, is still missing and presumed dead.

There are certain events that stop time. When we are left with the questions of: Where did we go wrong? And how on earth could this have happened?  That was my experience on February 5th.

Josh Powell and his father, Steven Powell, had been in the news for quite some time. Josh was considered a person of interest in the disappearance of his wife, and Steven had been arrested on charges of voyeurism related to his sexual abuse of young girls and consumption of child pornography.  Charlie and Braden were in protective custody and CPS was involved.

The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) has conducted a child fatality review of the case, and recently issued its findings and recommendations. After a review of the available facts, DSHS concluded that the deaths of Charlie and Braden Powell could not have been anticipated.

I and many of my colleagues have a different conclusion. Early on, we whispered that Josh Powell had killed his wife. With his father in jail and his world falling apart, we whispered that he might kill himself and take his children with him. We whispered because we had no proof. We whispered because we don’t want to be too cynical or negative. We whispered because we understood that Josh Powell was innocent until proven guilty, and we worried that Charlie and Braden would be innocent until dead. We whispered because we might be wrong or, worse, we might be right.

Whispering is only slightly louder than the silence that we at New Beginnings 30 years ago vowed to end. Charlie and Braden Powell have reminded me of my obligation not only to pay New Beginnings back, but also to pay it forward. Charlie and Braden demand that I use my voice. And so I want to ask you for 3 things.

First, when you are asked for your contribution to New Beginnings, please dig deeper than you think you can. And after you have made your gift, tell someone about it. You don’t have to say how much. Just say that you did it and why. Not in a whisper, but with all the clarity and purpose you can muster.

Second, vote with all of your conscience. Use a Sharpie. March your ballot to the mailbox and pray for a good outcome.

And third, join me in going to the theme of this luncheon and beyond. “It’s Everyone’s Business to Stop Domestic Violence.” Make it your professional business by having good policies and practices that support and help those who experience abuse and harassment. Think about what you can do in your job, both formally and informally, to make a difference. As I was coming up the escalators, I was thinking about how much access Nordstrom has to people. And how much influence. My own experiences here of marketing, customer service, fitting, alterations, and dare I say returns, as well as the friends I have who work here, mean there are so many opportunities for what we know about domestic violence and what we know about Nordstrom to intersect. And this is true in every business and workplace.

Make it your personal business by going further. Take a chance. Take a chance with your family and with your friends. Take a chance in your neighborhood and at your school. Take a chance with your team, in your congregation, at the grocery store.

Take a chance on compassion. Take a chance on hope. Take a chance on who we really are and the power we have when we call and work and live for an end to the violence.

Don’t whisper it. Say it. Shout it. Sing it. Bring it.

A change is gonna come, yes it will.

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.