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.”

1 comment:

  1. Quantum Binary Signals

    Professional trading signals delivered to your mobile phone daily.

    Follow our signals NOW and gain up to 270% per day.

    ReplyDelete