In an effort to regain custody of his two young sons, Josh Powell recently wrote a letter in which he boasted about his superior parenting skills while acknowledging the stress of being suspected in his wife's 2009 disappearance. "I have proven myself as a fit and loving father," Powell wrote days before he killed his...

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Days before Josh Powell killed himself and his two sons in a gasoline-fueled house fire, he boasted about his superior parenting skills while acknowledging “mistakes” and the stress of being suspected in his wife’s 2009 disappearance.

Powell filed a six-page letter Wednesday in a complex, acrimonious three-way child-custody battle he had waged with his in-laws and the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) since September. DSHS took custody of Powell’s sons, Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5, after Powell’s father, with whom they were living at the time, was arrested on child-pornography charges.

The state placed the boys in the care of Powell’s in-laws, Charles and Judy Cox, in Puyallup. Powell was granted twice weekly visits with his sons, including Sunday visits in his rental house in Graham, where the arson erupted.

The Coxes have repeatedly accused Powell of playing a role in the disappearance of their daughter, Susan Powell, in Utah on Dec. 7, 2009. Police in West Valley City, where the couple lived, have long considered Powell a person of interest in the ongoing investigation.

In his letter, Powell fired back at the Coxes, accusing them of endangering the boys with an ongoing home-remodeling project. He pleaded to regain custody of the boys, despite the ongoing suspicion and a series of investigations by Child Protective Services.

“I have proven myself as a fit and loving father who provides a stable home even in the face of great adversity,” Powell wrote.

“A lesser person would fall under the intense scrutiny I am facing, but apparently my inherent resilience as a person makes it increasingly difficult for them to pursue their agenda. I am standing tall for my sons, but it deeply hurts to face such ridicule and abuse.”

On Monday, Chuck and Judy Cox said they wish Powell had not been allowed to have visits with the children on his “own turf.” However, both acknowledged that under the law Powell was entitled to visitation.

Judy Cox said she thinks “there needs more and better supervision with people like Josh.”

Laws are written by civilized people and “civilized people cannot even comprehend something like this,” said Chuck Cox.

Judy Cox speculates his act was motivated by “desperation, selfishness and cowardice.”

“He claims to love his children, but he destroys them in a fire?” said Chuck Cox, his voice breaking.

DSHS spokeswoman Sherry Hill said state social workers had no evidence that Powell was a danger to the children or himself.

“If we have a case [where] we believe someone was very dangerous, it would have been handled differently,” said Hill. State child-welfare officials could have required the visitations occur in a DSHS office, or even with a police officer present.

Shortly after noon Sunday, authorities were called to Powell’s Graham rental house for reports of a fire. A contract worker hired by the state to provide transportation and monitor the visits between Powell and his sons was among the first 911 calls, and reported to police and her supervisors that Powell whisked the children in and slammed the door in her face moments before the fire erupted.

The worker has not been identified by Child Protective Services, but is described as working with Powell and the Cox family for several months. Foster Care Resource Network, which contracts with the state to work with foster children, adoptive parents and caregivers in Pierce and Kitsap counties, did not return calls Monday.

Thomas Shapley, senior director of public affairs for DSHS, told The Salt Lake Tribune that Powell’s visits with his sons initially took place at the network’s offices but had been in Powell’s home since Nov. 2. A decision was made that it was appropriate to have the visits in that setting, he said.

The worker drove the two boys from the Cox house to visit with Powell for four hours every Wednesday and Sunday, Hill said. The Sunday visits were at Powell’s home. During the visits the worker took notes about the boys’ interaction with their father and was required to submit her notes to Child Protective Services within five days of the visit.

“When they have supervised visits, they [the worker] must be within sight and sound of the child and all parties during the visit,” Hill said.

The state requires that all contract employees hired to handle such supervised visits have a minimum of 20 hours of training on child abuse, neglect, domestic violence and family dynamics, Hill said.

Documents filed in Pierce County Superior Court show that Powell’s sister, Jennifer Graves, feared her brother was “exhibiting signs of serious mental-health problems since Susan’s disappearance,” and urged the court to order psychological testing for him.

On Wednesday, despite Powell’s impassioned letter, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Kathryn Nelson ordered him to undergo a psychosexual evaluation and polygraph test, noting the “extreme child porn” found in a home Josh Powell and his boys had shared with his father. Steven Powell is being held in Pierce County Jail on charges of voyeurism and possessing child pornography.

Nelson also ordered the children to remain with their grandparents.

In his letter to the judge, Powell admitted “some mistakes and wrong judgments,” without specifying them. Apparently referencing his missing wife, he wrote, “My own heart was free of any guilt regardless of what people claim.”

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan. Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @jmartin206.

Seattle Times staff reporter Christine Clarridge and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.