Sunday, January 29, 2017

Child welfare investigation findings into Grace Packer's death might not be public for months

Posted January 24, 2017
Grace Packer
The findings of mandatory state and local investigations into the circumstances leading up to the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Abington girl last year might not be released until summertime or later.
And even then, no one knows if the reports will provide insight or recommendations into how to prevent something like the crime from happening again.
The investigations are mandated under Pennsylvania Act 33, and their purpose is to provide the public with a window back in time to see if anything could have been done to prevent a death or near death. When the law was passed, child advocates praised Act 33 as providing new transparency to the normally shrouded world of the child welfare system. Without such public oversight, they had argued, it’s impossible to know if the system, its laws, regulations and entities are working the way they should.
Now, though, child advocates say the law has not worked as they had envisioned. They criticized the review process as murky and compliance with the law as minimal regarding timelines for the release of reports. They also said criticism of the child welfare system in the reports is rare, and family involvement with other agencies is largely ignored.
A lack of uniform standards for how an Act 33 review should be conducted allows counties a wide and varied interpretation of the level of detail and scrutiny contained in a report, said Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates. The center provides legal help and social services advocacy for abused and neglected children in Philadelphia.
“The concept of the review, it’s supposed to be a learning moment by which to understand what could have gone wrong, if anything, and certainly what folks did right, as well as affirm good practice,” Cervone said. “When you look at the reports, there is not a lot of critical reports articulated. I often wonder if there was anything more critical said in the room, but left out of the report.”
When child welfare workers had no prior involvement with a family, the reviews frequently include little information about other agencies that might have been involved with families, such as law enforcement, court systems, the medical community or school systems, Cervone said. As a result, “red flags” might be missed and the final report provides only a “rough sketch of what is undoubtedly a multidimensional full-color picture,” he said.
“The function of these reviews is about prevention,” Cervone added. “It looks back, in order to learn what happened to prevent it looking forward.”
More troubling for Cervone and other advocates is that the law has no mechanism in place to track if recommendations are working or even followed.
“It’s not nearly as constructive or preventative for our children as we had hoped it would be,” said Cathleen Palm, founder and executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice in Berks County. “It has not translated into a timely review with tangible recommendations. If you see the same recommendation five or six times in the same year, that is not just about Bucks County or Dauphin County, it’s about all our kids.”
Sara Packer
Those concerns are why advocates such as Palm and some state lawmakers have called for the use of an independent office to handle the reviews, to remove any suggestion of a conflict of interest, especially in high-profile cases such Grace Packer’s, in which children fell under state or county supervision at one time.
Bucks County authorities allege that Grace's adopted mother, Sara Packer, a 42-year-old former child welfare caseworker and foster parent who lived in Horsham and Richland, conspired with her boyfriend, Jacob Sullivan, 44, of Horsham, to kill Grace as part of what authorities alleged was a “rape murder fantasy” the couple had shared. Authorities say the pair killed the girl in July and concealed the body in a third-floor attic of a Richland home until around mid-October, when the two dismembered the corpse and dumped the remains in upstate Pennsylvania.  
Bucks and Montgomery counties will conduct a joint Act 33 review into Grace Packer's life and death and submit a written report to the state Department of Health and Human Services, which conducts a second, separate review. Each county team must convene a review within 30 days after a child’s death. Bucks and Montgomery counties are expected to convene their review Feb. 6. Montgomery County is involved because Grace and her family lived there for 16 months prior to her death in Bucks County.
The state Department of Health and Human Services is required to conduct an Act 33 inquiry whenever child abuse is suspected — but not necessarily confirmed — in a death or near death. The state review is supposed to start as soon as the agency is made aware that a suspicious death occurred and complete and release it no later than six months after that. That review can incorporate the county’s review. The only exception to the six-month release rule is when a district attorney certifies that releasing a report might compromise a pending criminal investigation or proceeding.
Palm is especially concerned that the final public reports are typically heavily redacted so they provide little valuable insight to those outside the review team into what processes could have been handled differently. And she said the fact that no standards exist for how the death or near death reports should be prepared, the details provided wary widely by county.
“It’s hard to imagine what (information) is in an Act 33 (that) is so significant to a criminal investigation that it hasn’t come out already,” Palm said, referring to media reports and other information available to criminal investigators.
The state also routinely lags behind the six-month maximum allowed by the law when it comes to posting final reports on its website. Some of the delays are blamed on district attorneys. Statewide, DAs sealed 59 case files last year, according to the state Department of Health website. District attorneys can hold up a report's release for as long as they want, according to Palm.
Grace Packer's death is not listed among the 232 deaths or near deaths on the state website as occurring last year though investigators positively identified the girl's remains in November. Only 38 final reports involving those 232 cases have been posted on the site as of Monday. No reports have been posted for incidents that were reported as occurring after June 18, 2016.
Locally, six near deaths and three death reports involving Bucks County children were reviewed last year, according to the state website. One of those reports is public and three are sealed. In Montgomery County, four near deaths were reviewed last year; two were sealed by prosecutors (one case has since been released); the remaining two cases were not sealed, but one has since been decertified, meaning abuse is no longer suspected.  
“That is a universe that is way too big,” Cervone said. “There is just no excuse.”
Child advocates also expressed concerns about the Act 33 review for Grace Packer after details emerged about her mother Sara Packer’s years-long involvement with the child welfare system before her Jan. 8 arrest on murder charges.
For seven years, Sara Packer worked as a case manager and later as an adoption supervisor for Northampton County’s Children, Youth and Families division, and prior to that she worked two years as a case manager at a private foster care agency that state officials confirm provided services to Grace Packer. Sara Packer and her ex-husband, David Packer, also provided foster care for 30 children over a decade, according to the state. Officials have not said where the Packers were living when they provided foster care.
The Packers lost foster parent privileges in 2010, the same year that Allentown police arrested David Packer for sexually assaulting Grace Packer, then 9, over four years, and another foster child with mental challenges starting when the girl was 15. He later was convicted of both crimes. Also in 2010, Northampton County’s child welfare agency terminated Sara Packer for unspecified “misconduct.”
A child welfare investigation found substantial evidence under the state’s civil Child Protective Services Law that Sara Packer committed child abuse “by omission,” for failing to recognize the sexual abuse was happening, but those actions didn’t constitute a criminal act, according to her court-appointed lawyer, Keith Williams. She was not charged in that case.
It still is unknown whether child welfare workers had any involvement with Grace or Sara Packer after David Packer's arrest.
Under Act 33, state and county child welfare officials also are prevented from answering questions surrounding a death under pending review. Pennsylvania Department of Human Service Office of Children, Youth and Families declined to answer questions about the Packers including whether any foster children were removed from their home before 2010 and if state agency workers have reached out to other foster children who lived with the couple.
“There is very limited information that we are able to share at this time legally,” agency spokeswoman Rachel Kostelac said.
The only information the agency could release under Act 33 included that Grace Packer was not in the custody of a public or private child welfare agency at the time of her death and that five agencies provided various services to Grace Packer and her family in the years before her death. Those services included child protection, foster care, and child and home profiles. Home profiles are part of the approval process for foster and adoptive families and provide a summary of the family's apparent financial and emotional stability.
Palm said that Act 33 reviews are so focused on the child welfare system that they ignore other potential failures, such as whether a mandated reporter failed to act, or police didn’t forward concerns to child welfare authorities or if the abuse happened because of a social issue such as lack of housing or drug treatment. Often, Palm has found that when county teams determine child welfare had no prior involvement with a family, the reviews are more superficial.
“It’s either no mark against child welfare or a bad mark against child welfare,” she said. “It wasn’t intended to be that way.”
Palm is considering a campaign to push lawmakers to modify Act 33 to allow for review recommendations to be released even when reviews are sealed.
State lawmakers such as Rep. Scott Petri, R-178, Upper Makefield, and Rep. Katharine Watson, R-144, Warrington, agree that any recommendations in child death and near death reviews need to be released faster without jeopardizing a criminal prosecution. They believe the answer lies in creating an independent party that can cut through the system's confidentiality rules and conduct a holistic and objective review.
Petri has introduced legislation every year since 2003 to create an Office of Children’s Ombudsman. The office would receive, investigate and act on complaints of child abuse and neglect, have subpoena power, and report those complaints against child welfare workers to the Department of Health and Human Services. But the legislation has not made it out of the House. Petri said on Monday that he is preparing to reintroduce it again now that the Legislature has resumed its session.
"Without the ombudsman, you are three, four, five years behind your efforts in trying to understand if there are systematic changes that have to take place to protect children,” Petri said.
Watson believes that an ombudsman should be a member of the Act 33 review team to provide that independent point of view, especially in unusual cases like that of Grace Packer. The child welfare system was involved in Grace Packer’s life since she was a baby and Sara Packer formerly worked in the child welfare system.
“There are special cases where, if you do an Act 33, there could be some issues with the system itself. Somehow the system failed the child, and you essentially have the system review itself,” she said. “It doesn’t lend itself to the best review and people perceiving it as fair. I want people to come out of this process with faith in the system.”
Palm agrees that the Packer case has left many people doubting the effectiveness of the child welfare system. She pointed out that in states with independent reviewers, like a child ombudsman, such reviews are more likely to take a broader look at what happened beyond the child welfare system, such as how families interacted with social service and court systems as well.
“Clearly Grace Packer is a case that has, at the core, left people pretty uncertain about whether the state is competent in protecting kids in our foster care and adoption system,” Palm added. “While a review is done on Grace’s behalf, it’s bigger than Grace.”

Monday, January 16, 2017

Bucks County lawmaker wants legislative investigation of Grace Packer murder

Posted January 15, 2017
Sara Packer at her murder arraignment
A Bucks County legislator wants to determine if there was anything the state’s child welfare system should have done to prevent the murder of an Abington teen, who was sexually assaulted by her adoptive father at age 5 while her adoptive mother was a child welfare caseworker.
The adoptive mother and her boyfriend are charged with killing 14-year-old Grace Packer last summer in what officials have called a "rape-murder fantasy."
State Rep. Katharine Watson, R-144, of Warrington, said she'll call for a deeper investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of the teen.
“I really want to get an understanding of what went on,” said Watson, who chairs the Pennsylvania House’s Children and Youth Committee. “Is this a frightening aberration or were there — as we uncover this crime — were there steps along the way that people didn’t follow through?”
Authorities have charged Grace’s mother, Sara Packer, 41, of Richland and Horsham, and Jacob Sullivan, 44, of Horsham, with the murder. They dismembered her body and dumped the remains 100 miles away, in rural Luzerne County, after Abington police became increasingly suspicious of Packer’s claims her daughter disappeared in July, police said.
Authorities also charge that Sullivan sexually assaulted Grace twice in the weeks before the murder.
Grace Packer
Watson's legislative investigation will be in addition to the mandatory Act 33 Child Death Review that Bucks and Montgomery counties will collaborate on. An Act 33 review is designed to provide detailed accounts of the circumstances surrounding child deaths and near-deaths, including whether the county child welfare organization was involved with the family and if the agency complied with applicable laws or regulations. Reports generated from the review will be made public.  On Friday the state Department of Human Services confirmed that it is also reviewing the family’s child welfare history leading up to the murder of Grace Packer.    
Meanwhile, Watson said her staff is collecting information, including a timeline about Grace Packer's life and Sara Packer’s work history. She said she plans to bring the material to her committee when the legislative session reconvenes later this month. She added that the committee might hold hearings on the Packer case.
“Just so we learn from it. ... If it’s a failure within the agency or a failure within the law,” Watson said. “How much is it that (Sara Packer) was one of them (a caseworker)? You’re dealing with a woman who knew the system inside and out. If she is trying to hide, she is much better at hiding. That is really scary.”
Watson acknowledged any legislative investigation into the death likely will be a long and arduous process, complicated by a child welfare system that is shrouded in secrecy and the nuanced language of the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law. While the secrecy is designed to protect children and parents, it makes the investigation of child abuse and child deaths more complicated, Watson and child advocates said.
Since the arrests of Packer and Sullivan, child welfare advocates say they're troubled by additional details that have surfaced about Sara Packer's job as a case manager and later adoption supervisor for the Northampton County Children, Youth and Families Division, and about her then-husband, David W. Packer.
The couple adopted Grace and her younger brother in 2004, about a year after Sara Packer started her job as a case manager. The Packers took in 30 foster children, roughly three a year, between 2000 and 2010, when the state revoked their foster parent privileges.
Also in 2010 Sara Packer was suspended and later dismissed from her job for unspecified “misconduct" involving violations of the Child Protective Services Law. She was suspended one day after Allentown police opened an investigation into allegations that David W. Packer had sexually assaulted a girl with intellectual disabilities who had been the Packers' foster child, according to Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin. The assaults began when she was 15 and only came to light to authorities when she was 18, Martin added.  
Available court records show another former foster child of the Packers told her Montgomery County probation officer that David W. Packer's cellphone contained nude photos and videos of the 18-year-old who she knew, Martin said. Montgomery County authorities notified Allentown police and filed a ChildLine abuse report. Allentown police and Lehigh County child welfare authorities conducted a joint investigation, Martin confirmed.
That investigation resulted in criminal charges against the foster father in September 2010 for sexually assaulting Grace. Two month later, Packer was charged with sexually assaulting the disabled foster child in 2007 when she was 15. Packer was convicted in both cases a year later, sent to prison and paroled in 2015. He's required to register as a sexually violent predator. The couple divorced last year, records show.
County child welfare agencies are responsible for assessing the safety of children they serve and creating a safety plan as warranted, Cathy Utz, deputy chief of the Children Youth and Families Division of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services wrote in an email Friday. That response was in request to questions about what child welfare authorities should have done after David Packer was arrested in 2010.
“Determinations are made regarding services needed, and if the child needs to be removed, only when they are unable to safely remain with their families,” Utz wrote. “These determinations are made with all available information, including but not limited to, record reviews, interviews, assessment of the home environment, review of services being received and needed, coordination with law enforcement when applicable, and review of medical information when applicable.”
Sara Packer following her murder arraignment

As of Friday, it remains unknown if Lehigh County child welfare workers removed any children from the Packer home. Allentown Police Chief Keith Morris said in an email Thursday that his department, which arrested David Packer in 2010, wasn't given any further specifics on that criminal investigation. He referred all questions to the Lehigh County Clerk of Courts.
Also unknown is if Lehigh County offered Sara Packer or her children any supportive or protective services in 2010 or beyond. Montgomery County Children and Youth Social Services has confirmed that it had no involvement with Grace Packer or her family while they lived there in 2015.
If Grace and her brother remained in the custody of Sara Packer after her then-husband’s arrest, it was likely she wasn't suspected of child abuse herself, said Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia.  If Sara Packer had been named as an abuser, a dependency hearing would have taken place before a county judge to determine if Grace and her brother should be removed to protect their safety, Cervone said. Such hearings are closed, so there would be no public record.
While child welfare would have removed any foster children in the Packers’ care at the time of David W. Packer’s arrest since the couple were the legal parents of Grace and her brother, the only reason child welfare authorities would continue to check on them is if an abuse allegation was filed, child welfare officials said.
Martin, the Lehigh County DA, confirmed Friday that police didn't have evidence to prosecute Sara Packer in 2010. Available records show Sara Packer told authorities she didn't find out that her husband was sexually involved with their mentally disabled foster child until after the girl turned 18.
A “foundational question” in this case is whether Sara Packer was identified as a child abuser before or after 2010, according to Cathleen Palm. She's the founder and executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice in Berks County, the county that oversaw Grace Packer’s adoption.
“There will likely be many more questions if (Sara Packer) was named as a perpetrator and the living status of the children was unchanged,” she added.
Plus, Palm added, as a child welfare worker, Packer was mandated by state law to report even a suspected case of child abuse, Palm said.
“A key part of this case is what was thought about in terms of her ability to care and protect Grace (and the) other children,” Palm added. “Sadly, it may have been viewed as David was the only threat or challenge, so remove him and all is well, even as there may have been more (problems) hiding in plain sight.”
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email:; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia

Full of Grace: Abington moms say they can't let teen be forgotten

Posted: January 12, 2017

Many 14-year-old girls worry about being popular. Not Grace Packer. She was more worried about others.
She stuck up for the kids at school who were picked on or ignored. She wanted everyone to feel important, according to stories shared by those who knew her.
She loved the colors purple, lime green and light pink, flowers and hearts. She loved butterflies so much she incorporated them in her signature, one mom was told. Most of what is known about Grace is second- or third-hand. Few people in the tight-knit Abington neighborhood of Ardsley, where Grace and her family lived for about a year, knew her, according to neighbors.
It is why five moms who live in that neighborhood want people to remember her beyond the horrific details of her death, which has captured the attention of so many people here and elsewhere.
A Facebook page — "In Memory of Grace Packer" — has nearly 1,200 followers and keeps growing. Hundreds, including members of Grace’s biological family, are expected to attend the “Abington Loves Grace Packer” memorial service Monday in Abington. Community and government leaders are expected to attend a forum focusing on child abuse following the memorial.
GoFundMe page created to cover the costs of the memorial service as well as the funeral costs for Grace had raised nearly $9,000 as of Thursday, almost three times the original $3,500 goal. 
“Everyone that knew Grace says that she was a sweet and kind young woman that had a heart for those with special needs,” said Andrea Green Adams, the mother of four who is heading the group arranging the memorial service. “Everything that I’ve heard about her is what I want people to remember, not just the horrible things were done to her.”
Since her death, the once unknown details of Grace Packer’s short and brutal life have captured the public’s attention.
They include how Grace and her younger brother and older sister were removed from their birth parents' home and placed in foster care with Sara and David W. Packer. The couple later adopted Grace and her brother in 2004, when Grace was 3. Grace’s older sister, now 18, never lived with the Packers, according to officials.
The details of her life also include how David Packer started sexually abusing Grace when she was 5. The abuse resulted in criminal charges against Packer in September 2010, when Grace was 9, and his conviction a year later, Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin confirmed Thursday. Packer was also arrested and convicted in a second sexual abuse case involving a foster child living with the Packers, Martin confirmed.  David W. Packer was paroled in 2015. He lives in Northampton where he is registered as a sexually violent predator under Megan's Law. He and Sara Packer divorced last year, records show.
Available public records and social media provide no details about Grace Packer's life after 2010 until her disappearance in July.
That is when authorities allege Sara Packer, 41, and Packer’s boyfriend, Jacob Sullivan, 44, of Horsham, killed Grace after carrying out a "rape-murder fantasy" they shared. The couple plotted the killing for eight months, and carried out the plan over 18 hours, starting July 8 in a Richland home, near Quakertown, where they later stored Grace’s body for three months, authorities said. They dismembered and dumped her remains 100 miles away, in rural Luzerne County, after Abington police became increasingly suspicious of Packer’s claims that her daughter disappeared in July, police said.
Before Sara Packer reported Grace as missing, few local people said they knew anything about the family, according to authorities and neighbors.
Sara Packer moved to Abington in April 2015 from Northampton County. At the time, Grace was living in North Carolina with family members of adoptive dad David W. Packer, but returned to Montgomery County that November, according to authorities.
Abington police had no contact with Sara Parker while she lived there, according to Abington Deputy Chief John Livingood, who was involved in the investigation into Grace's disappearance.
“To tell you the truth, not many people really knew her other than in school,” Livingood said. “We talked to a lot of people around there and not a lot of people saw (Grace and her brother) outside of school. ... ‘We really don’t know much about them,’ is the response we got.”
Despite that, Adams said she was deeply concerned after learning Grace was reported missing over the summer. Her son and Grace attended Abington Junior High, though he didn’t know her.
"What if something happened to one of (my) children," Adams said she thought at the time, adding that she'd want to keep the missing person's case alive on social media.
When she found out just before Christmas that Grace had been killed, Adams immediately decided to hold a memorial service. She private messaged a few women whose children also attended Abington Junior High.
Within days, four other women — some strangers — had stepped up to help her organize the service. From there, she said, the effort exploded — particularly after the Sunday arrest of Sara Packer and Sullivan and the gruesome details of Grace’s life — and death — were made public.
Nadine Barnett, a mother of four, including 3-year-old twins, has a child who attended school with Grace last year. She saw Adams' post and immediately offered her help.
Over the last week, the women said, many others have offered to pitch in.
One woman who lives in Florida ordered flowers for the memorial. A local church offered to buy a headstone for Grace’s grave. Many strangers and family have created video and photo tributes now posted on YouTube. And many are opening up their wallets as well. 
The women are creating a nonprofit — “On Gracie’s Wings” — that will administer any leftover proceeds of the Go-Fund-Me account. The plan is to create two college scholarships for Abington High School students in Grace’s memory: one for a special needs students and the other for a foster child transitioning out of the child welfare system.
The nonprofit — which Adams is working to register with the state and IRS — will also create and distribute care packages for foster children, whom Adams said she has since learned often have to move at a moment’s notice with only the clothes on their back, and donate to a charity that helps children impacted by domestic violence.
The women are also talking with local officials about creating a butterfly garden and erecting a bench at a local park in Grace’s honor.
“This little girl’s story has impacted so many people’s lives,” Barnett said. “We do not want Gracie’s life to be forgotten.... We can’t have her story be untold and swept under the rug.”
The women initially expected about 150 people to attend the memorial services Monday at the New Life Presbyterian Church in Glenside. Now, they expect many more, but don't have a number.
“We know we are tripling the amount of food we are ordering,” Adams said.
Following the memorial service, the women will hold a forum at the North Penn VFW post in Glenside, where child welfare workers will talk about the lives of foster children, the signs that a child may be being abused and the best way to report suspected abuse while protecting the child.
That a child in their community was endangered and no one noticed haunts Adams, Barnett and the other mothers, the women said.
Barnett's children didn’t know Grace. But she said another mother, whose son was close friends with Grace, told her the girl wasn't allowed out of her house other than to attend school.
“There are a lot of warning signs we missed with Gracie,” Barnett said. “Every time you close your eyes, you can’t get these horrific images out of your mind.”
Adams is equally troubled.
“If we were so busy that we missed these signs, I need to slow down. I need to be more aware of my community and the children who are hurting,” Adams said. “No one seemed to care about this young lady and I want to make sure no one forgets about her.”
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email:; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia

Friday, January 13, 2017

Murder suspect Sara Packer's employment as child welfare worker terminated over 'misconduct'

Sara Packer

Posted: Jan. 10, 2017

The termination letter sent to the mother accused of participating in the “rape-murder fantasy” killing of her teen daughter provides some answers — and raises new questions — about why she was fired as a child welfare worker.
Sara Packer was suspended without pay over allegations of “misconduct," according to a copy of the 2010 termination letter from the Northampton County Children, Youth and Families Division. The letter states she was terminated as an adoption supervisor four months after she was suspended for violating part of the state’s child protective services law that covers contact with children.
Specifics about the alleged misconduct remain a mystery.
Packer, 41, was arrested Sunday for allegedly planning and participating with boyfriend Jacob Sullivan, 44, in the July 8 death of her daughter, Grace Packer, 14. The charges against the pair include homicide, conspiracy, kidnapping and abuse of a corpse for the later dismemberment of the body. Sullivan also is charged with raping Grace while her mother allegedly watched.
Grace Packer
Northampton County redacted portions of the April 15 termination letter, which was obtained by this news organization  along with other portions of Packer’s county personnel file through a Right to Know request.
The information confirms Packer worked at the child welfare agency for seven years until she was suspended Jan. 20, 2010. She was hired in January 2003 as a caseworker and promoted to a supervisory position in January 2008, according to the records. As an adoption supervisor, she oversaw five full-time caseworkers who were responsible for a wide-range of permanency services to children and families.
Action on additional employment information that was sought as part of the Right to Know request is pending.
Northampton County Solicitor Daniel O’Donnell denied the newspaper access to the redacted information in the letter, in part, because of “references to state agency investigations which are not subject to public disclosure,” according to the county’s response. He didn't respond to followup questions seeking clarification.
The termination letter stated that Packer provided the county’s child welfare agency director with information, and “based on the seriousness of these allegations of misconduct,” she was suspended pending a complete investigation. The letter also states Packer provided the agency with unidentified "documents."
According to the letter, the county deemed Packer’s termination “appropriate” because she violated the county agency’s policy and procedures code and the county’s code of ethics and discipline, as based on a section of the state’s Child Protective Services Law related to “employees having contact with children; adoptive and foster parents, and a certification from the department as to whether the applicant is named in the statewide database as the alleged perpetrator in a pending child abuse investigation or as the perpetrator of a founded report or an indicated report.”
Pennsylvania requires individuals who work directly with children — or volunteer directly with them — to undergo a child abuse clearance check. It's unclear if Northampton County required followup clearance checks for employees in 2010.
Pennsylvania employers and organizations are barred from hiring individuals or using volunteers for positions that involve direct unsupervised contact with children if the person was named as a perpetrator in a proven child abuse report within the previous five years. The same prohibition would apply to applicants for foster or adoptive parents, according to Cathleen Palm, founder and executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice, a Berks County child advocacy center.
The five-year ban doesn't apply if the abuse report is indicated though many employers and agencies have policies in place barring them because of liability concerns, Palm added.
An indicated report occurs when a county child welfare agency investigation determines substantial evidence of alleged abuse exists but does not rise to the level of a crime.
Five months after Sara Packer was terminated from her job, then-husband David W. Packer — Grace’s adoptive father — was accused of sexually assaulting an unidentified 9-year-old girl from 2006 until 2010. Two months later, police in Allentown, where the couple lived, filed additional sex crimes charges against David Packer after an 18-year-old woman claimed he assaulted her when she was 15, according to published news accounts.
The following year, David Packer pleaded guilty in both cases and he was sentenced to six months to three years in one case and one to five years in the other case. He was paroled in 2016 and required to register as a sexually violent predator under Megan’s Law, according to court documents. His last known address was in Northampton County, where civil records show he filed for divorce against Sara Packer in June 2016 and was granted a no-fault divorce two months later.
This news organization has been unsuccessful in reaching the Allentown Police Department’s media relations officer, Capt. Tony Alsleben, for comment about that case.
It was unclear Tuesday if Sara and David Packer were foster parents to children other than Grace and her younger brother, whom they adopted in 2004. 
Northampton County has no record of foster care payments to Packer, county Controller Stephen Barron Jr. confirmed. This news organization has filed Right to Know requests with child welfare agencies in Berks, Lehigh and Montgomery counties seeking records for any payments Packer may have received for foster care services. Montgomery County Children and Youth officials Tuesday confirmed that agency has no record of involvement with Grace Packer.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email:; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia
Did You Know?
  • In 2015, Pennsylvania processed 1,518,957 child abuse background check applications, and fewer than 1 percent – 2,224 – did not receive a cleared Child Abuse History certification.
  • Among that number of rejected applicants – 1,828 were named as a perpetrator in a child abuse report, 373 were identified as an alleged perpetrator in a child abuse report that was pending an investigation and 23 were named as alleged perpetrators in a child abuse report where the outcome was pending in criminal or juvenile court, according to the state’s annual child protective services report.
  • Among the applicants named as a perpetrator of child abuse, 10 were identified as prohibited from hire or selection because they were named as found perpetrators of child abuse within the five years prior to the processing of their child abuse clearance application, according to the report.

Abington mom accused of daughter's murder was once a child welfare worker

Sara Packer

Posted: January 10, 2017

A former Abington woman allegedly at the center of the grisly "rape-murder fantasy" enacted upon her 14-year-old adopted daughter previously oversaw the adoption unit of Northampton County's child welfare agency.

The revelation involving Sara Packer, 41, who is accused of planning and participating in the murder of Grace Packer, isn’t the only detail to emerge following the arrests Sunday of Packer, who most recently lived in Richland, and her boyfriend Jacob Sullivan, 44, of Horsham. Both face homicide and related charges in the death of the teen.
Packer was suspended from her job with Northampton County after seven years. And a few months later, her then-husband — Grace's adoptive father — David W. Packer, was accused of sexually assaulting a child.
The reason Sara Packer was suspended from her job and whether child welfare officials in Lehigh County, where the couple lived, knew of the sex crime allegations against David Packer and checked on the welfare of Grace Packer and her brother were among many questions surrounding the case Monday.
Sara Packer was hired to work in the permanency unit of the Northampton County Children, Youth and Families division in 2003. She was promoted to adoption supervisor before leaving in January 2010, according to Northampton Controller Stephen Barron Jr. Five days after her last day of work, Packer officially was suspended without pay, Barron confirmed Monday.
Grace Packer

The reason for Packer's suspension is in her personnel file, which Barron said he has not seen.
This news organization was unsuccessful Monday in reaching Kevin Dolan, director of the Northampton County Children, Youth and Families division. Dolan worked at the agency when Packer was there, Barron said. A request for copies of Packer’s personnel records has been filed with the Northampton County solicitor’s office under the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act.
Packer and Sullivan are accused in the gruesome July 8 murder of Grace, who was bitten, beaten, raped, hog-tied, gagged and drugged before she was left alone for hours in the sweltering attic of a Richland home. She was left to die as part of a “rape-murder fantasy” the couple had been planning for eight months, according to authorities.
Sullivan allegedly strangled Grace after the couple found her still alive and conscious 18 hours later. The couple then covered Grace’s body with cat litter and mothballs to mask the odor and left her in a third-floor cedar closet until October.
Sara Packer, who also maintained a residence in Abington, filed a missing person report with Abington police for Grace, who would have turned 15 in August, in an attempt to cover up the crime. When police became suspicious, the couple dismembered Grace’s body and dumped the remains on a rural road in Luzerne County, about 100 miles away. The remains were discovered by hunters Oct. 31.
The Packers adopted Grace, who was born in 2001, when she was 3 years old, and her biological brother, who is two years younger, after fostering them, according to authorities. It was unclear as of Monday which county the adoptions took place in; adoption records are sealed in Pennsylvania.
Allentown police filed charges of indecent sexual assault of a child younger than 13 against David Packer in September 2010. The unidentified 9-year-old claimed Packer sexually assaulted her from 2006 until 2010, according to news reports. Two months later, Allentown police filed an additional charge of indecent assault of a person younger than 16, statutory sexual assault and corruption of minors against David Packer after a then-18-year-old woman claimed Packer assaulted her between 2007 and 2008 when she was 15, according to news accounts.
In 2011, David Packer pleaded guilty to the indecent assault charge in the first case and statuary sexual assault in the second case. He was sentenced to six months to three years in prison in the first case and one to five years in the second case. He was paroled last year and is required to register as a sexually violent predator under Megan’s Law, according to court documents.
Northampton County civil records show David Packer filed for divorce against Sara Packer in June 2016 and was granted a no-fault divorce two months later. His last known address is in Northampton County. A man who answered a cellphone number Monday registered to David W. Packer claimed it was a wrong number.
This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching officials with Lehigh County Children and Youth Services and the Allentown Police Department for comment on Monday.
Cathleen Palm, founder and executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice in Berks County, was among child advocates questioning whether Lehigh County social workers looked into the health and safety of Grace Packer and her brother after the criminal charges surfaced against David Packer.
Palm also wondered to what degree -- if any -- child welfare agencies were made aware of those criminal charges, since it’s possible that law enforcement conducted an independent criminal investigation that didn’t involve child welfare. If the county’s child welfare agency wasn’t notified criminal charges were filed against David Packer, it would have no reason to open an investigation, she said.
“When something tragic happens to a child and you turn back to the very systems that made the decisions and ask them to explain what happened, it’s possible you’ll get a critical review, but it’s possible you won’t get the review that is needed,” added Palm, whose center long has advocated for an independent state oversight agency for child welfare cases.
Other child welfare officials agreed that an arrest or conviction for child sex crimes itself wouldn’t necessarily trigger a home investigation.
“If you were charged with sexual abuse, it would not be common for the investigation to go into your relationship with your kids,” said Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia. “If there is no evidence they were abused.”
When a parent is accused of sexually abusing a child that is not a member of that family, “a lot of circumstances come into play,” according to Cathy Utz, deputy secretary for Pennsylvania Department of Health and Human Services Children, Youth and Families. Frequently, when allegations of child abuse or neglect are investigated, children within the home of a suspected perpetrator may be interviewed, she added.
“We would hope if there were concerns for children in the home, even though it doesn’t meet our (child abuser) definition…. I would hope someone would make a report to the department to make sure we can do an assessment.”
As an adoption supervisor for a county child welfare agency, Sara Packer had a “tremendous opportunity” to find children, and many child welfare social workers become adoptive or foster parents, Cervone added.
“Is it a good thing? If she is a great person, it’s a great thing,” he added. “If she is a bad actor, now it’s the fox watching the hen house problem.”
Pennsylvania has minimum requirements in place for potential foster and adoptive parents. They include obtaining a child abuse clearance, state police criminal background check, FBI clearance for anyone in the home age 18 or older, Utz said. Agencies also will look at where the family has lived over the previous decade, as well as dig into civil court filings involving family court proceedings. They also require prospective foster or adoptive parents to provide medical clearance from a doctor and provide evidence of financial stability.
The state also requires child placement agencies submit a family profile — previously called a home study — described as a summary of the apparent financial and emotional stability of a prospective foster or adoptive family, Cervone said. The report is compiled after a series of meetings with social workers and it should include information such as a family’s community ties, existing support systems and relationships with family and friends.
But the one check that isn’t done on prospective foster or adoptive parents is their mental fitness, according to child welfare officials.
“You’d think someone this disturbed (as the Packers) should have been evaluated and that, in retrospect, we should ask more psychological questions, but point of fact, we don’t do that for child custody, we don’t do that for foster care and we don’t do that for other teachers or child care workers,” Cervone added.
As required under 2008 state law, Grace Packer’s death will be subjected to a child death or near death review, a process designed to provide child welfare advocates and others with detailed accounts of the circumstances surrounding child deaths and near deaths. Those reports address details such as whether the county child welfare organization was involved with the family, if the agency met compliance with any laws or regulations and made recommendations to prevent future incidents. It remained unknown Monday if Bucks or Montgomery counties would handle the review for Grace Packer.

Bucks DA on Grace Packer homicide: 'To them she was, unfortunately, a disposable child'

Sara Packer led out of her arraignment on murder charges

Posted January 9, 2017

After being beaten and raped, then drugged, bound and gagged, 14-year-old Grace Packer was left to die in a sweltering attic.
When she didn’t, the boyfriend of her adoptive mother strangled her. Both the mother and her boyfriend packed her body in kitty litter and moth balls to mask the odor of decomposition and left her in a closet for three months, authorities said.
Then, after police visited the couple’s Richland home in October asking questions about Grace, the pair dismembered her and tossed her remains in a remote area in Luzerne County, investigators say.
Bucks County detectives arrested Jacob Sullivan, 44, early Sunday and charged him with 19 crimes, including homicide, kidnapping, rape and conspiracy. Sara Packer, 41, Grace’s mother, was arraigned 12 hours later on 17 charges, including homicide, kidnapping, conspiracy and abuse of a corpse. They were both sent to Bucks County prison without bail. They could face the death penalty, said District Attorney Matthew Weintraub.

Throughout the arraignment and following press conference, Weintraub described the couple's alleged crimes as “depraved,” “cruel,” “unspeakable” and “heinous.”
Authorities say that July 8, Sullivan and Packer drove from Abington to their new Richland home with Grace, who was dressed in her pajamas and sleeping in the back seat. Upon arrival, Sullivan struck Grace in the face several times, splitting her lip, according to a probable cause affidavit.
Grace Packer
Following the assault, Packer and Sullivan took the girl to the third-floor attic where Sullivan raped her in Packer’s presence, according to the affidavit. Packer then gave Grace medicine she had purchased earlier that day to sedate her.
Then, Grace was bound and gagged and put in a cedar closet in the extremely hot attic, court documents said.
Packer and Sullivan left the home and returned to Abington. They returned to the Richland house at 3 a.m. the next day, expecting to find Grace dead from the assault, drugging and heat, police said.
But when they found her still conscious, Sullivan wrapped his arm around her neck and “slowly squeezed the life out of her,” the affidavit said.
“To them, she was, unfortunately, a disposable child,” Weintraub said during a press conference following Packer's arraignment Sunday.
Months earlier, Packer reported to police that Grace had disappeared from the bedroom of her Abington home on July 8, taking with her a backpack, $300 and a journal. A month later, though, Sara Packer moved without telling authorities. She removed Grace and her 12-year-old adopted son -- Grace’s biological brother -- from the Abington School District, but left school officials no forwarding address. She allegedly failed to return police calls to her cellphone or forward photos of Grace to be added to missing person databases. She didn’t tell relatives Grace was missing until October, and continued collecting Grace’s monthly Social Security check, authorities said.
Not long after the October visit by police, she purchased a bow saw and extra blades, according to court documents. Those items have not been found, police said.
Police say Packer and Sullivan moved the body to the second-floor bathroom of the Richland home, where they dismembered the girl in a bathtub. They put the body parts in two plastic totes and loaded them into Sullivan’s car, according to investigators. They then drove north toward the Pocono mountains, avoiding the Pennsylvania Turnpike, taking only back roads.
They drove about 100 miles north to Luzerne County, a place that Sara Packer was familiar with because she grew up there, Weintraub said. There they dumped the remains in a remote area. They remained undiscovered for about two weeks, until two hunters came across a torso without limbs in a remote area of Bear Creek Township on Oct. 31. Eight days later, the remains were positively identified as Grace Packer through dental records, authorities said.
Weintraub on Sunday confirmed that Packer and Sullivan were involved in a polyamorous relationship with another woman, who lives in Horsham. The woman, who this news organization is not identifying, is being called a person of interest in the case, but she has not been charged with a crime as of Sunday.
The woman is the person who called 911 Friday to report she found Sullivan barely conscious in the bedroom of the Horsham home and who later that day drove Packer to the hospital after finding her unconscious in the bathroom of the home, according to court documents. Packer and Sullivan both attempted suicide in what was described as a “suicide pact” using prescription medication, police said.
After he regained consciousness, Sullivan told several workers at Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health he was responsible for killing Grace, according to court documents. He also allegedly confessed his involvement to family members and implicated Sara Packer. The hospital workers had specific details of the murder that had not been previously released, authorities said.
Under subsequent questioning by Bucks County detectives, Sullivan revealed in detail how he raped and killed Grace with her mother’s help. Sullivan allegedly told authorities that he and Packer started planning Grace’s murder shortly after she returned home in November 2015, after a yearlong stay with relatives in North Carolina. Authorities also alleged that Sullivan twice sexually assaulted Grace Packer in the two weeks before her death.
Weintraub said Montgomery County plans to withdraw two charges against Sara Packer filed last month -- endangering the welfare of children and obstruction of justice -- and they would be absorbed into the Bucks County case.
Grace’s brother is in the custody of family members, Weintraub said. He declined to say if the boy has any idea what happened to his sister.
On Sunday, Packer arrived at Newtown Borough District Court wrapped in what appeared to be a white hospital blanket. Weintraub said police arrested her at the Horsham Clinic, where she had voluntarily committed herself. She kept her head down and said nothing as she walked through a throng of waiting media, but once inside the courtroom she picked up her head and appeared to be smiling.
Earlier, Sullivan was heard at his arraignment saying he was “sorry for what I did.” 
Following Packer's arraignment Sunday afternoon, Weintraub said the woman has not made any statements about the teen's death.
“How could any mother do this to their child,” he said. “I don’t have an answer.”
Neither do neighbors of Packer and Sullivan.
While news of the charges Sunday had already spread among Tennis Avenue residents in Abington, near the former home of Packer, most said they knew little about the family that lived inside the now-vacant, cream-colored home perched on a small hill set back from the road.
"It's a great neighborhood. It's pretty tight-knit. We know all of our neighbors," Steven Hartner said from his front door just down the street, "But that was the one neighbor we didn't know."
Terri Hack, who lives directly across the street, said it was "extremely upsetting" to know people charged with this type of crime had been living so close.
At the Summit Avenue apartment complex in Horsham, where the couple lived with a third woman, neighbors Ben Cleal and Stephanie Budney were stunned. They live in the apartment above where the three lived.
Cleal and Budney said they had only a few interactions with Sullivan and another woman residing in the apartment since first meeting them in mid-December.
"We were friendly and we would say 'Hi," Budney added. "I brought them down brownies and a Christmas card when they first moved in."
They said they never saw Packer nor had any idea she was staying there.
During their brief encounters, the other woman did most of the talking.
Sullivan was "kind of quiet," Cleal said.
Cleal and Budney were out of town for the holidays when it was reported that their downstairs neighbors could be connected to the Grace Packer investigation. When the couple returned Dec. 29, another neighbor filled them in. 
"It's such a horrific event," Budney added. "It's heartbreaking. It gives me the chills just thinking about it."

Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email:; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia