As Utah authorities work to solve the mysterious disappearance of Susan Cox Powell, Washington officials are focused on another unresolved problem: what's best for her two young sons.
For now, Charlie, 6, and Braden, 4, are living with Chuck and Judy Cox, their maternal grandparents, in Puyallup, Wash. But where they will live permanently depends on the outcome of two court cases.
A Jan. 19 review hearing is set in the child welfare action brought by the state's Division of Children and Family Services. A judge will then review how the boys are doing; what progress their father, Josh Powell, has made in addressing safety concerns; and whether any new services are needed.
"Everything is on the table at those review hearings," said John Long, senior counsel in the Washington Attorney General's Office.
Filings in that case are confidential, but according to a document filed as part of the second court case a custody petition filed by the Coxes Josh Powell recently signed an agreed dependency order that eliminates the need for a trial. That order likely spells out alternative plans for the boys' future, including what their father must do to get them back.
In their case, Cox asked the court in mid-November to appoint a guardian ad litem, who represents children's interests in court proceedings, so a custody investigation may begin. He also asked that they be allowed to review Josh Powell's psychological evaluation.
Pierce County Sheriff's deputies removed the boys from the Puyallup, Wash., home they shared with their father, grandfather Steve Powell and other relatives on Sept. 22. That same day, Steve Powell was arrested on charges of voyeurism and possession of child pornography; he remains in jail.
After five days in a foster home, the state temporarily placed the boys with the Coxes. During a shelter hearing on Sept. 28, Judge Kathryn J. Nelson ordered that the children remain in state custody and with the Coxes, citing the allegations against Steve Powell and the ongoing investigation of their mother's disappearance. To date, no charges have been filed against Josh Powell in either matter, and he has denied involvement in both his wife's disappearance and his father's activities.
During the September hearing, Josh Powell described himself as a "superior" parent who has worked hard to create a loving, stable home and keep his sons engaged in numerous activities. That claim was supported by affidavits from his mother, three siblings, family friends and a local pastor, who all described the boys as happy, well-adjusted and vibrant children despite missing their mother.
Since then, Joshua Powell has had three-hour weekly, supervised visits with his sons. In his recently filed affidavit, Chuck Cox said the boys return from those visits "obstinate and more openly defiant than normal."
"We have simply tried to accommodate and quickly get a handle over the boys' attitudes and tempers after visits," Chuck Cox said in the affidavit.
He described the older boy as "somewhat depressed" and "somewhat reluctant" to work with a therapist who visits their home weekly. Cox also said the boy complained on one occasion that "we don't do anything." Since the boys moved into their home, Cox said they have engaged in such activities as "playing in the field, catching bugs, looking for frogs, going to see Reptile Man, playing with cousins, attending birthday parties" and visiting a local zoo.
Lisa Kelly, a University of Washington Law School professor and director of its Children and Youth Advocacy Clinic, said it is not unusual for children to have an adjustment after visits with a parent.
"It is just something that is disconcerting to children for any number of reasons," said Kelly, from missing a parent to being upset at having to spend time with them.
A Pierce County Superior Court judge will review the case on Jan. 19.