Tragedy focuses attention on supervised visits
How could a father open the door to his children, then set the house on fire?
Authorities say that's what happened in Graham, where Braden and Charlie Powell, ages 5 and 7, died by their father's hand.
I can't begin to plumb those depths of human evil, or dwell on the suffering it caused.
Instead, I sought easier answers. Reading what happened, I realized I knew nothing about supervised visits. The boys were accompanied, until Josh Powell shut the door on her, by a social worker there for a supervised visit. She worked under contract with the state Department of Social and Health Services.
My questions: Who only sees their children during supervised visits? Who are the supervisors? And why are those visits important?
Judge Michael Downes, Snohomish County Superior Court's current presiding judge, explained that supervised visits are used in two kinds of cases. "There are family law cases and dependency cases," he said.
In family law cases, supervised visits may be ordered between the noncustodial parent and a child during and after divorce proceedings. Deborah Riehl, who provides supervised visitation through her Everett business Bright Beginnings, has done that kind of work for a decade. She is hired, usually by a noncustodial parent, and is paid $35 an hour.
She has a degree in human services from Western Washington University and has worked under contract for DSHS. But Riehl said the visits she conducts now, involving mostly divorce cases, have no mandatory education requirement.
Downes said it's dependency cases -- in which the state intervenes in raising children deemed to be at risk -- that require supervised visits overseen by DSHS. Training is required for supervisors contracted to work for the state agency.
"All of our cases would be dependency cases. We would not be involved in the family court visitations," said Sharon Gilbert, deputy director of field operations for the DSHS Children's Administration.
Sherry Hill, a Children's Administration spokeswoman, said contract supervisors are required to take at least 20 hours of training that covers child abuse and neglect, conflict resolution, domestic violence and other issues. Supervisors must be at least age 20, have a high school diploma, a year's experience in caring for children, a driver's license and meet background requirements.
"A parent may potentially be disruptive. We would want a highly skilled and very experienced person to work with them," Gilbert said. Hill added that the supervisor who accompanied the Powell boys "is a really seasoned agency supervisor. She had a lot of experience."
At any given time, Hill said, about 9,500 children are in foster care in Washington. "Josh Powell had two visits a week. Some families have more visits, and there are also sibling visits," Hill said.
If every foster child has one supervised visit per week, that's 9,500 visits. Hill said the real number may be double that or more -- and that estimate doesn't include the family court cases.
Hill said DSHS social workers also conduct the visits. Visit supervisors make detailed reports of each visit, and DSHS keeps those records.
There are three levels of visits. Supervised, the most stringent, means the supervisor must be "in sight and sound of the child and all parties at all times," Gilbert said. A monitored visit means the supervisor is close by, and checks in every 15 minutes. Unsupervised visits may also be allowed if, for example, a parent has undergone drug treatment and is doing well.
Why, I asked the experts, are visits allowed when a parent has put a child at risk?
"It's critical that children maintain a connection with family, even when there's been abuse and neglect," Gilbert said. "It's very rare to see a child who doesn't want to see their parents. We generally start all our cases with a plan for reunification."
Sometimes abuse has been so significant that children can't be returned to families. Yet in many cases, Gilbert said, "it's really important to maintain those relationships -- children with parents, parents with children."
Sandy Kinney is an area administrator at the DSHS Children's Administration office in Everett. In Snohomish County, she said, about eight agencies and providers contract with DSHS for supervised visits. The statewide rate for that work is $24.49 per hour, Kinney said.
Visits may be conducted at the Everett office, particularly if the parent is considered a flight risk, or in homes and public places.
And yes, visit supervisors are at risk.
"We intervene in a family at a very critical time. We're always operating in an environment in which there can be threats," Kinney said.
There are safeguards at every step, but there is no predicting all future behavior.
"Parent and child visits are supposed to be done in the least intrusive way," Gilbert said, "but be safe for the child."
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, email@example.com.
A memorial service for Charlie and Braden Powell is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Life Center Church, 1717 S. Union Ave., Tacoma. The brothers died Sunday in a fire set by their father during a visit at his home in Graham. The service was previously scheduled at a smaller church.
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