How Watching a True Crime Series Like The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell Can Help You Recognize Abuse Warning Signs

How Watching a True Crime Series Like The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell Can Help You Recognize Abuse Warning Signs

Shows like Oxygen's The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell can help bring awareness to domestic abuse, and could also help victims escape violence by recognizing available safety programs.

By Marni Eth
Susan Cox Powell

True crime podcasts and documentaries are having a moment, particularly those that dissect complicated cases with an element of mystery. A perfect example is the Susan Cox Powell story: The Utah mom of two went missing nearly a decade ago under suspicious circumstances, and just over two years after that, her husband, Josh Powell, killed himself and the couple's two sons, leaving a gruesome end to a puzzling case. Now, alarming new developments have been unveiled in Oxygen Network’s four-hour series The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell, which premiered Saturday, May 4 at 7/6 c.

Personal Space spoke to Jenn Oxborrow (LCSW), the Executive Director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, about her connection to the series and how her organization helps those in need. Oxborrow consulted with Oxygen on the Susan Cox Powell series to help explain the dynamics of intimate partner violence, victim advocacy issues, and some of the clinical psychological aspects of the case. Although this scenario may seem far-fetched compared with most people’s relationship troubles, understanding the red flags Powell noted before her disappearance could inspire abuse victims or their concerned loved ones to seek help in time to prevent tragedy.

Addressing Red Flags

Prior to her disappearance, Powell indicated she was having marital troubles with her husband and wrote that if something happened to her that looked like an accident, it probably wasn’t. This chilling premonition was a major clue that Powell was the victim of an abusive relationship.

Despite detailing concerns in her journal, she was likely unaware of the available resources in her area. According to Oxborrow, the shelter network in Utah for domestic and sexual violence has about "13 private non-profit programs that collectively offer about 100,000 nights of emergency shelter” beds per year. These programs also offer a range of other support, including counseling, children advocacy, help getting protective orders, and more. Oxborrow noted, “When someone who is at risk engages with a professional victim advocate who understands the nuances of domestic violence…. their risk of re-assault goes down by 65 percent.”

Utilizing these resources when you see red flags can be lifesaving. Plus, as Oxborrow explained, “Community-based advocacy programs have the utmost privacy and confidentiality standards.”

If someone believes they are in imminent danger, Oxborrow advises to always call 911 first.

Offering the Right Kind of Support

For those wondering why Powell didn't simply leave the relationship, Oxborrow explained: “High risk survivors are usually very hesitant because it’s very destabilizing to their family.” Especially when children are involved, uprooting them and bringing them to a shelter “can be really traumatic.”

Many in Powell’s position will want support and should talk to victim advocates to assess the potential for “lethal danger,” and for help “navigating the criminal justice system and complex custody issues.” Then they can review options and devise a plan to exit safely from the situation.

Surprisingly, encouraging a friend to leave a partner before contacting an advocacy group may do more harm than good.

“We need to be careful when talking to survivors because every case is so different,” Oxborrow warned. Pressuring someone to leave right away is not necessarily the right move. “Survivors know their case better than anyone, that’s why it’s important to respect their wishes and never impose expectations because it can cause unintentional harm,” she continued.

Working with a professionally trained advocate to offer advice and support is the most powerful tool.

Don’t Excuse Abusive Behavior

Oxborrow noted people often exhibit the same power and control dynamics they witnessed as children. In Powell’s case, her husband displayed behaviors and “narcissistic tendencies” that his father displayed as well.

Although his actions were not surprising, Oxborrow explained, “People can always learn a different way to engage and different communication strategies.” Therefore, no matter what their history was as a child or in a previous relationship, it never excuses their behavior, because "people can always change" those patterns.

“Perpetrating domestic violence on someone is a choice…. just like it’s a choice to do a crime like bank robbery,” she concluded.

In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act was passed, creating a budget and infrastructure for each state to develop programs, policies, and practices aimed at ending domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking in every state. To find the number for local resources in your state, click here.

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