After Powell tragedy, states may reconsider custody procedures

The tragic murder-suicide committed by Joshua Powell, a father who blew up his home while he and his two sons were inside, wrenched the hearts of Baltimore citizens and people everywhere. The two children were 7 and 5 years old, and were on a state-supervised visit to see their dad when the incident occurred. Police say that Powell managed to prevent the children’s caseworker from entering the house before he ignited the explosion.

Powell had been in the midst of a custody dispute with the children’s maternal grandparents. The children had lived with their grandparents for the past year, and their father was allowed only to have supervised visits with his children. In the aftermath of this unthinkable tragedy, many states are now questioning their custody and visitation legal processes, and studying whether states can or should do anything more to protect children.

Judges are usually given great discretion in custody decisions. The judge’s determination of whether a child is in danger is typically the deciding factor of whether a troubled parent is allowed to continue visits with his or her child. The threshold for completely denying a biological parent custody and visitation of his or her children is very high.

Usually, these cases involve strong evidence of substance abuse, sexual abuse or violence.

Judges can, however, provide specific instruction regarding how and where visits occur. If there is a concern for the safety of the children, a judge may require that visits happen in a secure place such as a courthouse or police station.

In the Powell case, the boys’ father was allowed twice-weekly visits with his children, including supervised weekend visits at his rented home. Many legal professionals have said that, given the details of the custody dispute, the judge could not have predicted such a tragic end to this arrangement.

Additionally, legal scholars seem to agree that judges are generally very effective in case-by-case custody decisions. However, in the wake of this disaster, some groups in a variety of states are pushing for new legislation to place more restrictions on visitation and custody rights.

Source: USA Today, “Powell tragedy sparks questions about child custody,” Yamiche Alcindor, Feb. 7, 2012