The Seattle Times
Opinion

Low-graphic news index | Mobile site


Friday, March 16, 2012 - Page updated at 03:00 p.m.

Guest columnist
Ensuring the welfare of children and families requires vigilance, courage

By Merril Cousin and Nan Stoops
Special to The Times

A MONTH has passed since we lost Charlie and Braden Powell. While the investigation has faded from the headlines, for many of us, the despair, anger and sadness remain fresh and achingly familiar. We remember other children who were murdered and fear it will happen again. We hope we can learn lessons and make changes fast enough to prevent this fear from becoming a reality.

Today, countless victims of abuse are trying to keep themselves and their children safe. They are turning to the same systems that Susan Cox Powell's family and other homicide victims did. And they are scared. While we all agree that Josh Powell is responsible for this tragedy, surely there were missed opportunities for interrupting his violence and protecting Susan Cox, Charlie and Braden. Surely there are systemic corrections that can be made. Surely each one of us can do something.

Unreasonable caseloads and inadequate funding in our family courts, criminal-justice, human-services and child-welfare systems result in a triaging of assistance that leaves many at risk. The limited resources they have are a reflection of our values as a society, and each of us has a responsibility to change that.

But a lack of funding is only part of the story. We also have a responsibility to engage in honest conversations about parental rights. It is critical for our courts and the child-welfare system to be cautious, thoughtful and thorough when considering whether and how to restrict a parent's access to his or her children. And there are times when the safety and well-being of children must be prioritized over family reunification and a presumptive right to visitation or joint custody.

The co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment is well-documented. Studies show an overlap of 30 to 60 percent nationally. Similarly, custody disputes often include allegations of domestic violence, neglect and child sexual abuse. These cases are complex, contentious and challenging — both factually and emotionally.

Investigators, caseworkers and judges typically do not have the resources (time, training, tools) to intervene effectively with the Josh Powells of the world. And, while Josh Powell's final act was extraordinarily heinous, his behavior in the years preceding it was not that unusual.

Abusers can be skilled tacticians. They manipulate and exploit the very systems that are designed to hold them accountable. They see the lack of resources, and they count on the confusion and inaction of those closest to them. And they place their "rights" above the well-being of their own children.

Next month, Child Protective Services (CPS) will conduct a child-death review in the Powell case. Many of us are examining other emergency response, family law, parent evaluation and visitation policies and practices. These activities will, undoubtedly, point to systemic changes that can increase protections for children and for adult victims of domestic violence.

But we must not rely only on systems for the change we seek. We must also rely on one another and on ourselves.

We care about the health, happiness and promise of childhood. Ensuring this for all children requires vigilance, care and courage. Each of us has a role in ending domestic violence and working for safe and loving families and communities.

We remember Charlie, Braden and Susan Cox Powell. We say never again. Never.

Merril Cousin, left, is the executive director of the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Nan Stoops is the executive director of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company