Will we ever learn?
Lessons from the Josh Powell case murder/suicide case.
Charlie and Braden Powell deserve justice. The vicious, cowardly, and diabolical actions of their father cry out for answers. Could this tragedy have been avoided? Why did Josh Powell have supervised visitation at all? Why did the Court and DSHS allow supervised visitation at his home and not at a safe and secure place, such as a police station or DSHS office? Were Child Protection officials waiting until he was criminally charged in his wife’s disappearance to terminate visitation? Most importantly, what was the psychological benefit to the children to visit with Powell while awaiting his arrest for the murder of their mother?
As often happens following a tragedy like this, when the ashes cool, countless mistakes are revealed.
Let’s be honest; but for the recorded video images of the fireball explosion of Josh Powell’s home, the sordid and tragic details of this case would simply fade from our memory. However, this case is different. We saw the house engulf in flames knowing that two little boys were inside that inferno. The intentional incineration of two helpless and innocent children at the hand of their father demands a serious and thoughtful re-examination of decision-making in this case.
Early in the disappearance investigation of his wife, Susan Powell in December of 2009, the Utah Police declared Josh Powell as “a person of interest.” “A person of interest” is a common police euphemism to denote a prime suspect when there is not yet enough evidence to charge a crime. As time went on, it was obvious that Susan Powell wasn’t going to be found or return home. She was clearly the victim of a sinister and violent plot to kill her and hide her body. From the very beginning, Josh’s behavior and alibi were suspicious. Within a month of Susan’s disappearance, Josh Powell suddenly and suspiciously moved out of the marital home with his two boys and relocated to Washington State to reside with his father, Steven Powell. That move was calculated to elude police scrutiny, media glare and to ensure that Utah Child Protective Services would not have jurisdiction over his children.
Fortunately, Josh’s scheme began to unravel while residing in the home of his father, Steven in Washington State when in September of 2011, Steven Powell was arrested for voyeurism and child pornography possession. Washington State Child Protective Services rightly determined that the children were at risk residing in the home of their grandfather. Charlie and Braden were removed and subsequently placed in the custody of Susan’s parents who also resided in Washington State. Josh’s calculated maneuver to maintain custody of the boys, avoid media and police attention and fade into oblivion ran amuck.
Despite these troubling developments, Josh was not going to be denied his boys. He kept demanding that the Court return custody of the boys to him. Initially, Josh had supervised visits with his children at the secured DSHS visitation center and then the fateful decision was made to change the location of supervised visitation to Josh’s newly rented home. Why did DSHS make that decision? Child Welfare officials claimed that the high profile nature of the case made it difficult at the Visitation Center and Josh provided them with another option.
The clever and calculating Josh Powell came up with a solution. Josh told them that he had rented a home for the boys. DSHS found the home appropriate to hold supervised visitation there and told the Court. Yet, like his alibi in his wife’s disappearance, Josh lied about the house. After the fire and death, police disclosed that the house was abandoned and Powell did not rent the house, but merely occupied it as a squatter for purposes of deceiving and deluding DSHS that he was a respectable, stable, and loving father. Instead of asking to see the property lease to verify his assertions, the Child Protection “experts” swallowed Powell’s latest alibi that he rented the home.
Ignoring the children’s safety, DSHS tragically erred and took the word of a sociopath. Common sense dictates that if a man would lie about the disappearance of his wife, you might want to check to see if he would lie about a renting a home. One of the first things that police learn in the cadet training academy is to always verify alibis, phone calls, statements because people often lie, especially ones who are under investigation. And, DSHS? Did they verify his lease? Did they look beyond the Josh Powell mask of sanity?
According to police detectives, they believe Powell passed the abandoned home off as his so that he could be granted supervised visits with his sons, Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5. “He set it up like a rental place, with pictures of the family,” Sgt. Denny Wood said at the meeting.”I think it was staged so when DSHS came, it would look like a loving family,” he said.
Why Supervised Visitation?
Why did they even recommend supervised visitation between Josh and the boys? Washington Child Protection officials told ABC’s 20/20 that the reason for supervised visitation was because the child protection agency determined that the Powell family case plan goal was reunification. The box on the DSHS bureaucratic form was checked for reunification with Josh and his boys. Once a goal has been established by child protection officials, it is very difficult to change. Incredibly, to effectuate this goal, supervised visitation would occur twice a week with the “person of interest.”
Despite the fact that Josh Powell was the only person of interest in his wife’s disappearance/homicide, despite the fact that he brought his little boys to live with his father, a man who had just been arrested for voyeurism and child pornography possession, and, despite the fact that Josh Powell, himself, had incest cartoons on his computer, the child welfare officials continued to believe that this is a family that must be reunited and live together outside the scrutiny of the child protection system. In furtherance of this bureaucratic goal of reunification, the child welfare system would effectuate, accommodate, and provide supervised visitation between Josh Powell and his two little boys at his “rented” home and appointed a new supervisor– a contract worker to supervise the visits.
Despite the highly disturbing facts coming to light from Utah Police, the Washington Court and DSHS were receiving contrary reports from a new visitation supervisor, Mrs. Elizabeth Griffin Hall. In her reports, she said everything seemed fine.
Mrs. Griffin-Hall wrote that Powell often had activities planned, whether it was carving a pumpkin or reading stories. He gave his sons juice, brought them lunch or made “beautiful” breakfasts. (What is a beautiful breakfast?) Her October 23rd report detailed that “Dad is very attentive to the boys and listens carefully to their words and ideas.” She went on to describe Josh Powell that “he smiles, laughs and holds them.” Griffin-Hall also detailed that “the children are affectionate with Dad and frequently hug him and stand close to him,” according to her notes of a Jan. 29 visit, the last before their deaths. One wonders were they standing close to him on the day he hacked them and set them on fire?
Following the deaths of Charlie and Braden, Griffin-Hall told ABC’s 20/20 that “Josh Powell did not appear to be somebody that was going to kill his children.” Is this statement the level of sophistication and psychological training of child welfare workers? How could the child protection system and its workers ignore that this man was the only person of interest in the high profile case of his young wife’s disappearance? Mrs. Griffin Hall didn’t think like he “looked like someone who would kill his children.” Follow the logic here: Kill his wife, probably, but never touch the children! Apparently, this supervisor was never trained in the commonly known domestic violence statistic that 61% of women die at the hands of the husband or lover.
Instead of looking at the facts, she looked at the face of the man. Even so,the average television viewer saw Josh Powell’s flat affect, elusive and halting explanation of his alibi which was clearly damning evidence of his guilt. The elderly grandmotherly supervisor was no match for the young and conniving Josh Powell. The supervisor’s sweet grandmotherly demeanor should have eliminated her as a supervisor of a visitation with Josh Powell. She was clearly incapable of protecting these boys in the event of a physical altercation with Josh. Why would DSHS assign an elderly, naive, physically rotund woman to supervise a visitation with a strong and wily man who was a person of interest in the long term disappearance of his young wife of a high profile case?
Why didn’t Washington State DSHS assign an off duty male police officer to supervise the visitation? Josh Powell would have surely been intimidated by the force and presence of an intimidating law enforcement official. He would not have been able to push him out of the door like he did the female supervisor. A stronger, younger man would have been able to kick in the door or window and possibly rescue the boys. The contract supervisor told 20/20 that Josh Powell “didn’t look like a monster.” That statement is so utterly gullible and pathetic coming from someone who is supposed to be skilled at protecting two small boys from a man who is a person of interest in his wife’s disappearance case, and has incest cartoons on his computer. Is that why DSHS said after the homicide/suicide that they believed the home visits were appropriate and that there was no indication that Powell was a threat to his kids? Rather than acting on the alarming facts coming from Utah law enforcement and protecting the children, they deferred to the naive observations of a contract worker/supervisor.
This senseless tragedy could have been avoided at many junctures. The supervised father who was the subject of these visits vehemently insisted on custody of his boys. Many disturbed, violent, perverted, imbalanced parents hound and harass courts demanding custody of their children. Repeated requests for custody is not indicative of competence, love, or the best interest of the child. The children’s best interest should have been paramount, not Josh Powell’s. A rational and careful analysis of the facts should have determined that Josh Powell was a clear and present danger to his children. The dye was cast and the match was struck when DSHS determined that the goal for this family was reunification.
Ironically, the family goal has been achieved: Charlie and Braden are now reunited in heaven with their mother.
Next article: The impact of child pornography on the custody case.
© Elizabeth Yore-2012 All Rights Reserved
Elizabeth Yore is the former Special Counsel at Harpo, Inc.where she served as Oprah Winfrey’s Child Advocate. She is also the former General Counsel at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.