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Friday, January 13, 2017
Abington mom accused of daughter's murder was once a child welfare worker
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.
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.