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TACOMA, Wash. — One by one, attorney Anne Bremner walked through a list of nearly 50 “red flags” that preceded the killings of Charlie and Braden Powell, Susan Powell’s sons, at the hands of their father eight years ago.
Expert testimony marked day two of the trial over a wrongful death lawsuit involving the two young boys in a Tacoma courtroom.
The list began with perhaps one of the most telling indicators of the potential for future violence in the Powell family: the disappearance of Josh Powell’s wife, Susan, from the couple’s home in West Valley City on Dec. 7, 2009.
Red flags and Susan Powell’s sons
“Why was this (a) red flag?” Bremner asked in Pierce County Superior Court on Wednesday.
Jane Ramon, an expert witness called by the legal team representing Susan Powell’s parents Chuck and Judy Cox, offered her answer to the jury.
“Because there’s questions, certainly, as to why the disappearance of these little boys’ mother and what has occurred and has there been any violence to that person in the midst of the disappearance,” Ramon said. “Or is it a murder?”
Josh Powell took his sons and left Utah less than two weeks after Susan Powell’s disappearance, taking up residence with his father, Steve Powell, at his home in South Hill, Washington. They were still living there in August 2011 when police served a search warrant at the home seeking evidence including Susan Powell’s childhood journals.
The following month, Pierce County deputies arrested Steve Powell because of voyeur videos they’d located in the home. The deputies took Charlie and Braden into protective custody that same day.
Susan Powell’s sons were subsequently placed by the state in the care of Chuck and Judy Cox, their maternal grandparents. Josh Powell was attempting to regain custody of his sons when, on Feb. 5, 2012, he killed them and himself during a court-authorized visit.
In their lawsuit, the Coxes have accused state social workers of negligence toward the boys’ safety, instead prioritizing reunification of children in protective custody.
Ramon called that “reunification bias,” saying Washington Department of Social and Health Services records from the Powell case exhibited it — “shockingly so.”
Ramon is the first witness to testify in the long-delayed trial, which could last into March. She previously worked for the state of Washington’s child welfare agency. The Coxes’ legal team called her to testify to the “standard of care” expected of social workers in child dependency cases.
In court, Ramon pointed to numerous places where she believed Washington’s handling of the Powell case was deficient. Those included a failure to flag the Powell case as one of domestic violence.
“Is murder a form of domestic violence?” Bremner asked.
“The ultimate form,” Ramon replied.
While police did consider Josh Powell the lone suspect in their homicide investigation, detectives never arrested him. Josh Powell was also never charged with any crime related to his wife’s disappearance.
What went right
During cross-examination, an attorney representing the state of Washington, Joseph Diaz, repeatedly pointed Ramon to instances in the record where social workers had collaborated with law enforcement. He also noted West Valley City’s case records were not available to the social workers due to a court secrecy order in the state of Utah.
“There’s been no evidence presented in this case of any abuse or neglect in Utah of Charlie or Braden,” Diaz said.
Diaz also asked Ramon to offer a list of what she believed the Washington social workers had done right in their dealings with the Powell family. Ramon credited them with removing Charlie and Braden from their grandfather’s home, as well as referring them for therapy.
That praise was undercut though by her final answer.
“Did more things go wrong than went right?” Bremner asked.
“Sadly, yes,” Ramon said.
Resources and related information:
The Utah Domestic Violence Coalition operates a confidential statewide, 24-hour domestic abuse hotline at 1-800-897-LINK (5465). Resources are also available online: udvc.org.
Help for people in abusive relationships can be found by contacting:
- Utah Domestic Violence Coalition: Utah’s confidential statewide, 24-hour domestic violence hotline at 1-800-897-LINK (5465)
- YWCA Women in Jeopardy program: 801-537-8600
- Utah's statewide child abuse and neglect hotline: 1-855-323-DCFS (3237)
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233