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Originally published Thursday, August 2, 2012 at 9:00 AM

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Powell report: Caseworkers didn't consult cops about danger

Six months after Josh Powell killed himself and his two children, a report indicates a disconnect between how caseworkers and police viewed the threat Powell posed to his children.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Powell Fatality Committee Report

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An independent panel has found that social workers should have consulted with law enforcement before allowing Josh Powell to have in-home visitations with his two young sons, whom he killed in a fiery explosion in February.

The panel, noting that the social workers were aware that Powell at the time was considered a suspect in his wife's disappearance, also should have gathered more information on Powell, particularly in regard to potential domestic violence.

At the same time, the panelists determined the additional efforts likely may not have changed the tragic outcome of the Powell case and noted "the conduct and interaction of professionals involved in this case demonstrated the highest concern for the children's health, safety and welfare."

The report also offered a series of recommendations to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

"There needs to be greater collaboration between law enforcement and DSHS," said state Sen. Jim Kastama, a member of the panel that included lawyers, a judge, a police officer, social-service providers, a psychologist and two state senators.

Powell, who had lost custody of his sons Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5, following his father's arrest for voyeurism, killed the boys and himself Feb. 5 in a house fire during a supervised visitation. He locked state-contracted social worker Elizabeth Griffin-Hall out of the home moments before attacking the boys with a hatchet and igniting a fire.

Chuck Cox, grandfather of the slain boys, was disappointed with the report.

Cox said he couldn't understand why the independent panel did not suggest a major overhaul of how the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) handles child-dependency cases. Cox, who had primary custody of Charlie and Braden at the time of their deaths, said the case underscores deep flaws in the system.

"We still have this outcome, that tells me procedures were inadequate," said Cox, 57. "I understand, and I'm glad that none of the actual social workers or case workers involved are found to be at fault, but that doesn't mean there wasn't a fault there. It doesn't absolve the system. We told everyone we could that Josh was capable of this and we wanted those kids safe."

Kastama said there was a communication failure between authorities in Washington state and in Utah, where Powell's wife, Susan Cox Powell, went missing in late 2009. Police in Utah were concerned about protecting a missing person, possibly a homicide investigation, and unable to share information with DSHS in fear that the information would be released publicly and accessible by Powell, Kastama said.

Had more information been shared "it may have helped" save the boys' lives.

But, Kastama quickly adds, that's not completely certain. Kastama would like to see state legislators address a way for agencies across state lines to share information in child-dependency cases without compromising either case.

Reporter allowed in

State law requires DSHS, which oversees the Children's Administration, to conduct a review whenever a child receiving services from the agency dies or suffers a serious injury suspected to be caused by abuse or neglect.

During three days in April and June, panelists heard from numerous witnesses, including Griffin-Hall. They also heard from DSHS employees, three Pierce County sheriff's investigators assigned to the Powell case and a former assistant attorney general.

Panelists focused on DSHS's handling of the Powell child-supervision case and talked at length about what officials in Washington state had been told by police in West Valley City, Utah, the agency investigating the disappearance of Susan Cox Powell.

DSHS allowed a Seattle Times reporter to sit in the closed-door panel discussions as long as panelists were not quoted directly. The Times also agreed not to report on the panel discussions until after the report was released.

Kastama, D-Puyallup, said that he and other panel members "set out with the goal of trying to find something that could have prevented the case." But, he added, "even with the recommendations, there is really no assurance the case would not have happened."

A tragedy unfolds

Powell was considered a person of interest in the disappearance of Susan Cox Powell, 28, who went missing in December 2009. Josh Powell told police he last saw his wife before he took his boys on a late-night camping trip in Utah's desert in freezing temperatures.

Josh Powell and his sons moved from Utah to his father's home in Puyallup a short time later.

Powell's father, Steven Powell, was arrested last September after investigators searching his home for evidence in the disappearance came across computer disks with what they described as thousands of images of women and girls who seemed unaware they were being photographed. Powell was convicted in May of 14 voyeurism counts.

Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist has surmised that Powell killed the boys because a judge had ordered him to undergo a psychosexual evaluation before he could regain custody of his children.

After Steven Powell's arrest, the boys were placed in the custody of Chuck and Judy Cox.

Seattle lawyer Anne Bremner, who is representing the family of Susan Cox Powell, said she plans to file a notice of claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — over the state's handling of the Powell case.

"In danger all along"

While Griffin-Hall, the social worker, explained during her testimony to the panel that she never had a bad feeling about Powell in regards to the boys, Pierce County sheriff's Sgt. Teresa Berg told the panel that she thought they "were in danger all along."

"If we had information that the kids were going to be killed, we would have driven down there and taken the kids. Having gut feelings or ideas doesn't get you to removing the kids (from the house). Our suspicions, gut feelings and worries don't cut it in the world." she said.

While the panel found social workers should have consulted with law enforcement, the report notes that there is no legal requirement to do so in such a case, according to the report.

Detectives also said they were unaware that Powell had been permitted to have visitations with the boys inside his home. The panel, in its report, makes four recommendations:

• If there's an active criminal investigation involving someone connected with a child-dependency case, Children's Administration should make an effort to consult with law enforcement involved before making any changes in parent/child visitation agreements.

• There needs to be ongoing domestic-violence training for Children's Administration staff.

• The courts need to articulate its reasons for placing children with a caregiver over the objection of a parent.

• Children's Administration should reassess visitation agreements and other supervision issues soon after a psychosexual evaluation is issued.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

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