The House Early Learning and Human Services Committee considered a bill Thursday that was spurred by last year’s Powell family tragedy. Josh Powell was a suspect in his wife’s disappearance when he killed himself and his two young sons during a supervised home visit.
The Department of Social Health Services conducted an investigation of the Powell case, which is required whenever a child dies of suspected abuse or neglect. The findings of the Child Fatality Review Team are the basis for this bill.
Under the proposed legislation, parents who are the subject of a murder investigation would have their visitation rights restricted or removed. It also requires DSHS to coordinate with law enforcement and the court system if a family member is suspected of a crime that could affect the safety of a child.
Patrick Dowd, a former ombudsman of Washington’s Office of Family and Children, told the committee that there needs to be more transparency between DSHS and law enforcement.
“Not perhaps asking for full disclosure,” Dowd said, “but simply a worker saying, ‘look we need to determine what limitations might be placed on the father’s contact so we can protect these kids.’”
Sen. Randi Becker (R-Eatonville) is the sponsor of the bill and also served on the fatality review team. She views another element of the bill as crucial — the requirement of DSHS to reassess family visitations when a parent is ordered to complete a psychosexual evaluation.
This revision, Becker said, could have prevented the deaths of the Powell boys.
“When he went in to make his appointment for that psychosexual evaluation he asked all sorts of questions,” Becker said. “From my own perspective I think that’s when he realized he was in trouble.”
Grace Huang of the Washington State Coalition against Violence agreed with Becker. She said abusers can turn violent when they feel their power is threatened. “Unfortunately for those of us who watched the case unfold, we were not surprised,” she said.
The bill also mandates domestic violence training for caseworkers.
Huang said her coalition worked with DSHS to create a training guide with advice on how to deal with abusers, as well as support victims. “But up to this date,” she said, “we still haven’t seen comprehensive training throughout the department.”
Concerns about the bill have been raised by the Washington state bar association — including the concern that the legislation could keep parents who are innocent of their crimes from seeing their children.
But Becker said the state needs to continue hoping for the best but planning for the worst.
“I don’t think we’ll ever prevent 100 percent, no more fatalities. But if there’s one thing we can do, that’s what we need to do,” she said, “and looking at it and incrementally making changes might help these children.”
The committee took no action on the bill Thursday. It passed out of the Senate unanimously.