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Saturday, March 11, 2017
State DHS taking 'broader' look at child welfare agency linked to Grace Packer case
Posted: Mar 10, 2017
State child welfare officials are taking a deeper look at the past and current practices of a private for-profit Lehigh County child welfare agency with ties to an Abington woman who was a former employee and foster parent and is accused along with her boyfriend in the rape and killing of her adopted daughter last year.
The Department of Human Services' review of The IMPACT Project in Emmaus was described as taking a “broader scope,” beyond the mandatory review it's also conducting into the death of Grace Packer, 14, allegedly at the hands of Sara Packer, 42, and Packer’s boyfriend, Jacob Sullivan, 44, said DHS spokeswoman Rachel Kostelac. The examination includes the agency’s current cases, administrative policies and internal oversight, Kostelac said.
So far, three counties — Montgomery, Lehigh and Northampton — have announced they will no longer use IMPACT for child welfare services for the foreseeable future following recent allegations by former foster children that its workers failed to address abuse claims involving Sara Packer more than a decade ago. The agency has provided services, such as specialized foster care and juvenile court evaluations, in more than 30 counties in Pennsylvania and Delaware since 1991.
The IMPACT Project’s executive director, Courtney Wagaman, wrote in a March 8 statement that since its inception, IMPACT has operated in “the best interest, safety and welfare” of children in its care and “stringently adheres, without exception” to requirements that any instance of suspected child abuse is promptly reported to the appropriate authorities.
State records show that IMPACT has routinely passed annual license renewal inspections, the most recent one on April 19 and 20. At the time, the agency had 78 children in its care, 41 approved foster care families, and employed 20 staffers. The 2016 review mentioned the agency’s personnel records were “in good condition with excellent training and supervision.”
The only reports citing noncompliance came from a March 2011 inspection, and involved the agency's failure to get physical and dental exams for some foster children within 60 days of placement as required by law, according to the report. IMPACT took corrective action, including implementing policies to withhold foster parent paychecks until appointments are made.
Sara Packer at her January 2017 arraignment
IMPACT has significant ties to Sara Packer, who worked there as a case manager for two years. Packer and her former husband, David W. Packer, also became licensed as foster parents in 2000, while she was an IMPACT employee. Over the next decade, the couple took in 30 foster children, though it’s unknown how many were placed with the family through IMPACT. It is also unclear if Sara Packer provided foster care services for IMPACT while she was an employee.
IMPACT placed Grace Packer — then known as Susan Hunsicker — her younger brother and older sister with the Packers for foster care in 2004; at the time Sara Packer was working for Northampton County’s Office of Children, Youth and Families as a case manager and later adoption supervisor. Sara and David Packer adopted Grace and her younger brother in March 2007.
State regulations do not prohibit employees of private or public child welfare agencies it licenses and oversees from providing foster care services. But financial conflicts of interest can occur when an agency contracts for foster care services with one of its employees, Kostelac said. When this happens, the agency has to get a waiver of the regulations and state permission, a requirement to bypass any state mandate.
Last year, DHS granted 225 waivers and all but 23 were requests to place more than six kids — the maximum under state regulations — with the same foster family. Kostelac confirmed that the department has no record of a waiver submitted for Sara Packer while she worked at IMPACT.
Neither Bucks nor Montgomery counties' children and youth departments allow staff to act as foster parents for children in the agency’s custody. Wagaman, the executive director at IMPACT, did not immediately respond to an email Friday asking if the agency currently or in the past has allowed employees to serve as foster parents for children in its care.
Montgomery County spokeswoman Lorie Slass said private child welfare providers with whom it contracts are responsible for addressing the daily needs of children placed through the agency, and must visit children in their foster homes at least once a month. County child welfare employees are responsible for case management and service coordination, and visit the provider foster homes at least on a quarterly basis.
Child welfare employees frequently also are licensed foster parents, said Christine James-Brown, CEO of the Child Welfare League of America, the nation’s oldest child welfare organization. Allowing agency employees to provide foster care services to children placed within the agency can also be a positive, she said. For instance, an employee might know more about a child’s history than an outsider.
Those professionals working in the child welfare field need to be subjected to the same level of scrutiny, accountability, training and supervision as someone from outside the organization seeking to be a foster or adoptive parent, she said.
“Just because they work for an organization doesn’t give them a pass on anything,” James-Brown said. “Most organizations are especially careful because they don’t want to be under the kind of scrutiny that they have fouled up.”
It has been the best practice for many years that child welfare employees who apply to be foster parents are assessed by an agency other than the one they work for, added Donna Petras, vice president of models of practice and training for the Child Welfare League.
“This is to prevent bias in the assessment and overlooking possible red flags due to bias in favor of a colleague,” Petras said.
Questions about IMPACT have surfaced recently after two former foster children of the Packers' alleged in interviews that they told IMPACT caseworkers about the couple’s abusive behavior toward foster children in their care, including Grace, back in 2006. The women each came forward with the allegations after Sara Packer was arrested.
The state Department of Human Services revoked Sara and David Packer's foster parent licenses in 2010, the same year that David Packer was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting Grace Packer, then 9, over four years, and another foster child with mental challenges starting when she was 15. David Packer later was convicted of both crimes and served five years in prison before being released in 2015. He is required to register as a sexually violent predator.
A subsequent child welfare investigation found substantial evidence that Sara Packer committed child abuse “by omission” under the state’s civil Child Protective Services Law, meaning she failed to stop the abuse, but the offense did not rise to the level of a crime. She retained custody of Grace and her brother. The Packers divorced last year, records show.
Bucks County authorities have charged Sara Packer, formerly of Abington but recently of Horsham and Richland, and Sullivan, of Horsham, with the killing of Grace Packer. The teen was raped, drugged, beaten and strangled in July, authorities say, and her dismembered remains were found Oct. 31 in a remote section of Luzerne County.
In the months that followed the killing, Sara Packer reported her daughter missing to police and also continued to collect government checks for Grace’s care, according to police. The couple remains incarcerated without bail in Bucks County's prison and are awaiting trial on homicide and related charges.