Family Law

Could Deaths of Two Boys in Supervised-Visitation House Fire Have Been Prevented?


In the aftermath of a terrible tragedy, observers are wondering what, if anything, could have been done to prevent two boys, ages 5 and 7, from dying along with their father after his Washington state home erupted in flames during a supervised visit on Sunday.

Little, it seems, likely could have circumvented the deaths after Josh Powell shut the door on the caseworker assigned to come inside and supervise the visit, Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Sgt. Ed Troyer told the Seattle Times. However, Troyer said the sheriff’s department it is unhappy about the approximately seven minutes a dispatcher spent questioning the caseworker after she called to report she had been locked out.

Some delay also may have resulted from the fact that the caseworker didn’t immediately know the address of the Powell home and had to search for it, according to USA Today.

But about four minutes into the call, the caseworker also told the dispatcher that she smelled gasoline. Investigators later determined that Powell had spread a five-gallon drum of gasoline around the house to accelerate the fire, which police said he set intentionally. The boys, who died from smoke inhalation, also suffered chopping injuries from a hatchet.

About six minutes into the call, she asked when officers would be there and the dispatcher told her: “I don’t know, ma’am. We have to respond to emergency life-threatening situations first,” the newspaper says.

In response, the woman said the situation could be life-threatening and told the dispatcher “I’m afraid for their lives.” Not long after that, the house exploded into flames.

Powell, who was 36 at the time of his death in the fire, was a suspect in the disappearance of his 28-year-old wife, in 2009, when the family lived in Utah. Although family members fear she is dead, her body has never been found.

While the case has been investigated as a murder, authorities in Utah publicly held out hope that she would be found alive, the USA Today article says.

The boys had been living with their maternal grandparents, and Powell reportedly was unhappy about a recent court ruling that denied him custody and required a psychological evaluation. He lost custody in September, after his father, who also lived in the home, was arrested on child pornography charges.

Family courts focus on helping parents stay connected to their children, absent clear evidence of violence or substance abuse, Norman Heller told USA Today. He chairs the New York-based matrimonial practice at Blank Rome.

At the same time, “the trend has been for every state to give judges broad discretion to protect children,” said Randall Kessler, who chairs the ABA’s Section of Family Law. “I can’t imagine that the judge had any concern that the father would do this or the judge wouldn’t have allowed the children to see him.”

Additional and related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Minutes After ‘I’m Sorry, Goodbye’ Email to Lawyer, Client’s House Blows Up, Killing His 2 Sons”

Salt Lake Tribune: “Tips about Susan Cox Powell case pour in after Josh’s death”

Salt Lake Tribune: “Coxes were used to set up Powells, says lawyer “

Seattle Times: “Prosecutor: Powell’s final act ends doubt he killed wife”

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