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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Wednesday, June 21, 2017
State report issued on child welfare agency in Grace Packer case
Posted June 7, 2017
Sara Packer at her January 2017 arraignment
A for-profit foster care agency that is under state scrutiny appears to be following the rules necessary to maintain its Pennsylvania license as a child welfare provider, according to an interim report from the Department of Human Services.
The IMPACT Project, based in Lehigh County, drew the attention of state and local child welfare officials earlier this year for its connection to Sara Packer, the former IMPACT child welfare worker accused in last year's rape, murder and dismemberment of her 14-year-old adopted daughter, Grace.
The state review was prompted by IMPACT’s prior practice of permitting employees to foster children under the agency's care without state approval, along with recent allegations from former Packer foster children that staff members ignored complaints about abusive behavior a decade ago, DHS spokeswoman Rachel Kostelac said.
Packer, and then-husband David, provided foster care for children under IMPACT's supervision in 2000, while she was an employee. The couple continued taking in foster children after Packer began working at the Northampton County Division of Youth and Families, first as a case manager and later an adoption supervisor.
Grace and her two siblings were among the 30 foster children the Packers cared for between 2000 and 2010; all but seven of them were placed with the couple through IMPACT, records show. The Packers adopted Grace and her brother in 2007.
The state revoked the Packers’ foster care license in 2010 after the conviction of David Packer for sexually abusing Grace and another foster child in the home. Sara Packer was terminated from her job with Northampton County that year. The couple divorced in 2016.
In its investigation of IMPACT, senior regional DHS investigators found no current IMPACT employees were fostering children for the agency. The agency's foster care handbook states it doesn't “condone” the practice. Investigators recommended IMPACT clarify that policy.
IMPACT Executive Director Courtney Wagaman said no employees have provided foster care for the agency for at least six years, though the policy wasn't added to the handbook until 2015 at the earliest.
Pennsylvania regulations don't ban employees of licensed child welfare agencies from providing foster care services for their agencies, but a state waiver is required. DHS has no record of such a waiver for Sara Packer or any other IMPACT employee, Kostelac said.
Neither Bucks nor Montgomery counties' children and youth departments allow staff to foster children in their agencies' custody.
The DHS investigation found IMPACT foster family records were updated and accurate, the report said. None of the foster families or foster children interviewed by state investigators expressed complaints or concerns about IMPACT.
Wagaman called the report a “fair assessment" and the findings a positive for the agency, which serves 65 to 70 children in Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice in Berks County, said she was pleased DHS took the initiative to investigate IMPACT before the state-mandated death review for Grace Packer, but questioned the scope and depth of its report on IMPACT.
She said she anticipates the state child-death review, called an Act 33 Review, will provide more information about the Packers as foster parents.
She also said the Packer case is a powerful illustration of why the child welfare system needs third-party oversight, something Palm has advocated for years.
“Children and youth in our child welfare system experience abuse, removal from home, court-ordered services, often with their voices so diminished and, even if they can speak up, the concerns get voiced, not to an independent child protection ombudsman, but instead to the very system that controls the fate and future of the child,” she said.
Bucks County authorities have charged Sara Packer, of Horsham and Richland, and boyfriend Jacob Sullivan, 44, of Horsham, with killing Grace Packer. The teen was raped, drugged, beaten and strangled to death 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 murder, Sara Packer reported her daughter missing to police and continued to collect government checks for Grace’s care, according to authorities. The couple remains incarcerated without bail in Bucks County's prison awaiting trial on homicide and related charges scheduled for next year.