Lawyer for dismembered teen's biological parents: 'Something went wrong in the system here'

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Two images of Grace Packer, who was 14 when she went missing from her Abington home in July, and was found dismembered in a wooded area of Luzerne County on Oct. 31

Grace Packer's biological parents fought to keep her.

Rose and Rodney Hunsicker battled Berks County child-welfare officials for two to three years to keep their children, according to their attorney at the time. They did not want to lose custody of Grace and her two siblings.

But Children and Youth officials in Reading fought "aggressively" to remove the children, alleging abuse by other adults in the home, Norristown attorney David Tornetta told the Inquirer.

It was there in Berks County, more than a dozen years ago, that Grace Packer's tragic journey began, a path that would weave through four counties, involve multiple social-service agencies, and leave her sexually violated by an adoptive father.

That was all before her dismembered body was found in Luzerne County woods on Halloween. She was 14 years old.

Prosecutors say Grace Packer's life ended in an alleged rape-murder by her adoptive mother and that woman's boyfriend.

Since the Jan. 8 charges against Sara Packer and Jacob Sullivan, criminal investigators and public-welfare officials in Harrisburg and multiple counties have been scrambling to understand who knew what about Grace's well-being since her adoption, and if anyone failed in their duty to keep her safe. The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has launched its own investigation, as have Children and Youth Services agencies in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.

There's also renewed scrutiny on Sara Packer's past. Now 41, she had served as a foster parent to 30 children before having those rights revoked in 2010, yet was allowed to keep custody of the girl prosecutors say she would later scheme to kill.

"I can't imagine what that young child went through," Tornetta said. "I guarantee you if that child had been in Rose and Rodney's care, it wouldn't have been anything like this. Nothing, nothing. It just seems to me like something went wrong in the system here."

Acting on a tip

Berks County officials had opened their child-welfare case against Grace's birth parents about a dozen years ago, after allegedly receiving a tip that their children were being abused by other family members in their home, Tornetta said.

The lawyer said he came to know the Hunsickers as a loving couple who were unemployed but could have become better parents with some help.

Rose and Rodney Hunsicker were so determined to keep their children that the case went to trial. When the judge's order came down, Tornetta said, "Rodney couldn't even sit with me, he was so upset."

Rose Hunsicker struggled to grasp the finality of it, he said. " 'When do I get my kids back?' " Tornetta said she asked him.

One of the last times he talked to Grace's biological mother was in 2006 or 2007, he said, when she called to ask for help: Was there any way, she asked, to see her children? "I said, 'Rose, there's nothing I can do for you,' " he recalled. "I felt bad."

Tornetta said he has since lost contact with the family. The Inquirer was unable to track down the Hunsickers last week. Authorities have not disclosed how Grace landed in Sara Packer's care.

Adopted by Packer

In 2000, Lehigh County officials approved Packer's request to become a foster mother, said Rachel Kostelac, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services.

Three years later, Packer began working for Northampton County Children, Youth and Family Services. She oversaw caseworkers, paperwork, and other elements of adoption cases, Northampton County Controller Stephen J. Barron Jr. said. Soon after, she adopted Grace and the girl's biological brother.

Over the years, at least four agencies provided services to the Packers: Berks County Children and Youth Services; Lehigh County Children and Youth Services; the Impact Project in Emmaus; and Pinebrook Family Answers, with an office in Allentown, said Kostelac.

In 2007, Sara Packer was married and living with her family in Allentown. That year, her husband, David Packer, sexually assaulted a 15-year-old foster child in their home, court records say.

In 2010, David Packer was charged with rape. He also was accused of having assaulted Grace, although court records don't reveal when or where. At the time of the charges, she was 9.

David Packer pleaded guilty to both charges and was sent to state prison.

In an interview last week, Lehigh County District Attorney James B. Martin said Sara Packer had told investigators at the time she knew her husband had sexual contact with the older foster daughter, but not until after the girl had turned 18.

Child-welfare officials knew about the criminal case, Martin said, but he did not know if child-welfare officials separately investigated the family. Officials from state and county agencies have declined to say.

Sara Packer was never charged. Still, in 2010, the same year as the case, she lost both her job and her foster-parent eligibility. County and state officials have declined to discuss the reasons behind either.

She and David Packer eventually separated; they didn't file for divorce for an additional six years.

It's unclear when she and Sullivan, a 44-year-old Montgomery County man, began living together. Over more than a year, they shared rented homes in Abington and Quakertown.

In January 2015, Grace was sent to North Carolina to live with a relative. When she returned in November 2015, authorities said, Sara Packer and her boyfriend began planning the girl's murder.

Last July, Sara Packer reported her daughter missing but didn't take a picture to the police station, authorities said. For all of August, authorities could not find Sara Packer. In September, Packer told them she'd moved to Quakertown and provided photos of Grace.

Authorities say she was continuing to collect Social Security payments on behalf of the missing girl. In November, she was charged with endangerment and obstruction for not cooperating with their probe.

Investigators now say Sullivan raped Grace as her adoptive mother watched in early July. Then the pair allegedly killed her, packed her body in cat litter and left her in the Quakertown attic for four months before dismembering her and dumping her remains. On Halloween, two hunters in Bear Creek Township found a head and torso near a dam in Luzerne County. Searchers found more limbs the next day.

On Dec. 30, Packer and Sullivan allegedly attempted suicide by overdosing. A preliminary hearing on murder, rape, and kidnapping charges is scheduled for Friday.

Days before, a Glenside church will host a memorial service for Grace. "We wish we would've known and we wish we could've saved her," said Nadine Barnett, one of five mothers who organized the Monday service at New Life church on Easton Road. "But the only thing we can do now is keep her memory."

jmcdaniel@philly.com

610-313-8205 @McDanielJustine

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