Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Monday, January 16, 2017
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.
A 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.”