Out of Powell Tragedy, One Bright Spot: A Lesson Learned

When Josh Powell killed his two young sons, blowing up his home with both inside immediately after a social worker dropped them off for a visit, people across the nation were left asking one question: how could this have happened? How could a man under suspicion for his wife’s murder, a man ordered to undergo a psychosexual evaluation, a man whom many had expressed fears about his capability to harm his children, be allowed visitation in his private home with Charlie and Braden Powell?

In the days following the brutal murders, many were outraged the telling signs that pointed to this tragedy, detailed in the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services case records, were ignored. Signs including an email from a state social worker sent to the company chosen to supervise visits just months before the tragedy, stating, “I don’t want to sound alarmist or alarm you, but this is a highly sensitive case, and we want to cover our bases for the ‘just in case’ possibilities…911 is first call if there is any type of emergency.”

Or psychologist James Manley’s January 31st report regarding 400 sexual and incestuous images, including those of cartoon characters, found on Powell’s computer: “the reviewed images indicate someone’s fantasy-laden view of having sex with children. This is not a healthy parenting perception.”

Or visit supervisor Elizabeth Griffin-Hall’s notes detailing a tense exchange on November 27th, noting that, “dad became agitated and turned red” when Braden told his father “they found Mommy in the desert.”

Or her November 30th report, classifying the prospect for negligent treatment by Josh Powell as “moderately high.”

While hindsight is 20/20, the boys’ maternal grandparents want to ensure telling signs in future cases are not missed or ignored. Chuck and Judy Cox are working with Washington State Senator Pam Roach to overhaul the state’s Department of Social and Health Services, with reforms that include creating a child welfare transparency committee to ensure more records are made public and splitting the department into smaller agencies so that telling signs like in the Powell case are caught before it’s too late.

This tragedy is a glaring example of a system that completely failed two young boys. A system that repeatedly missed warning signs and ignored what was in their best interest. Yet out of it comes the chance for the Washington state welfare system, and every state’s system, to learn from this major mistake. I applaud the Cox family because, despite their immense grief, they are focusing on moving forward and making sure no other family has to endure what they did. While it should not have taken the senseless deaths of two little boys for a much-needed spotlight to be shone on the flaws of the child welfare system, at least now state legislators will hopefully be compelled to enact reforms to improve the system.


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