Powell Boys Murder: Let's Consider the Caseworkers

It is hard to imagine something more horrific than the news out of Washington State about Josh Powell, who blew up his two young sons and himself during what was supposed to be a supervised visit on Sunday. Mr. Powell was considered a person of interest in the 2009 disappearance of his wife, Susan, whom authorities believe is likely dead.

Mr. Powell had recently lost a bid to get custody of his boys, Braden, 5, and Charlie, 7, from his in-laws. Telling relatives that he could not live without the boys, he methodically prepared to kill them, giving their toys and books to Goodwill and buying gasoline to set the house on fire. The coroner announced this week that he had hacked both boys with an ax before the explosion.

I can't keep myself from reading the news accounts of this tragedy, and, like everyone else, I'm feeling a rock in my gut looking at the blameless, endearing faces of the boys. They are close in age to my youngest child. The pictures of them in Halloween costumes, next to the pictures of their charred home, form the cruelest counterpoint.

But I wonder how many people are grieving as well for the eyewitness survivor to the blast, the social worker assigned to supervise the visit. After the boys ran into the house one step ahead of her, Mr. Powell locked the door before she could enter the house.

"This is the craziest thing, he looked right at me and closed the door," she told the 911 operator, whom she called when she smelled gas. "I rang the doorbell and everything. I begged him to let me in." Her blood pressure must have spiked as she tried to describe the lethal situation, while the dispatcher kept asking her questions like "So you supervise and you're doing the visit? You supervise yourself?"

"This could be life-threatening," said the woman, a 15-year veteran of the system who asked the local newspaper not to use her name, though other papers released it. "He went to court on Wednesday, and he didn't bring his kids back and this is really -- I'm afraid for their lives."

Every day, thousands of child welfare workers do the daily, sometimes dirty, often risky work of trying to do right by kids whose homes are considered unsafe. They keep watch over the 254,375 youngsters -- yes, more than a quarter million -- who entered foster care in 2010. Sometimes that means driving them to visits that need to be supervised. Sometimes that means witnessing unfathomable evil.

I worry about this brave woman and how long she will be haunted by what she saw, by what she tried to prevent. Her husband told King5 News that she was "totally devastated and traumatized" by what happened, and that she had met with a counselor. She had bonded with the boys during the many visits she had supervised for them, and told her husband, right after the blast, "They trusted me. They trusted me. They trusted me."

In many of the other countries where Covenant House takes care of abused and neglected children, there are no such caseworkers, as there are no functioning child welfare systems. In the United States, caseworkers are often taken for granted, or worse, ridiculed for how they do their nearly impossible jobs. Too often, their case loads are too high, their training is insufficient, and they lack the basic tools they need to do their jobs well. As a profession, they are dedicated to helping children, and the pay they receive can never match the enormity of their responsibilities. Too often, they are unsung heroes.

Join me in sending condolences and support to this woman, whose life has been jarred to its foundations, just because she showed up to one of the hardest jobs imaginable.