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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.
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.”