After her then-husband was arrested in 2010 for sexually assaulting two of their children, Sara Packer found her own name added to the Pennsylvania child-abuse registry.
Child welfare investigators concluded that she either knew, or should have known, that the girls — one a foster child, one adopted — were being abused by David Packer. He was convicted in 2011.
Sara Packer was fired from her Northampton County adoption-services job and was barred from fostering any more children, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.
However, the adopted daughter, Grace, and her younger brother remained with Packer.
About five years later, at age 14, Grace was killed. Sara Packer and her boyfriend, Jacob Sullivan, lately of Quakertown and Abington, were jailed this month in Bucks County on charges of conspiring to rape and murder the teenager.
Now, a stunned community is left to wonder: Could the system have saved Grace?
There is no simple answer.
Because records relating to minors are private, it is not possible to trace every step of the Packer family’s journey through the child-welfare systems of multiple counties. Officials in the counties that dealt with the Packers would not comment or did not return calls from the Inquirer last week.
What is known, though, reveals a state system that allowed Sara Packer to continue in the role of parent even while listed in the child-abuse database.
A report of “indicated” child abuse was filed against her because of her husband’s case, Packer’s attorney, Keith J. Williams, told the Bucks County Courier Times last week. The child welfare investigation found she had committed child abuse by omission — either not noticing or not stopping the abuse — under state child-protection laws, he said. (Reached Friday by the Inquirer, Williams said he could not comment.)
Packer told authorities at the time of her husband’s criminal case that she was unaware that he had abused Grace and a foster daughter, and that she had found out about sexual contact between David Packer and the foster daughter only after the girl turned 18, according to Lehigh County District Attorney James B. Martin.
Williams told the Inquirer on Wednesday that Sara Packer had been “used and manipulated” by her husband during that case.
Perpetrators of child abuse deemed “founded” are barred from working or volunteering with minors. But entering the child abuse database on an “indicated” report, as Packer did, holds no legal significance, and does not start an investigation into a person’s parental rights. Such registrants are not forbidden from working with children, according to the state Department of Human Services.
Nonetheless, most organizations still do not hire them, said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice, based in Bernville, Berks County.
Packer's entry into the registry “doesn’t mean — and the law doesn’t require it to mean — that [county child welfare agencies] have to go before the court and say: ‘Should we reassess? ...Should there be any change in her ability to parent kids in her home?’ ” Palm said.
Children and Youth officials in Lehigh and Northampton Counties have not released any information about investigations in the Packer home. It would be standard procedure for child protection agents to have put the family under supervision after the sex-assault case, said Chuck Johnson, president of the National Council for Adoption.
“I would be quite convinced … that the child protective services in Pennsylvania would’ve intervened in this family’s care,” Johnson said. “The decision must have been made to leave [Grace], obviously, with Sara Packer, and we don’t know to the extent that they remained supervising the family.”
In addition to the criminal investigation by Bucks County prosecutors, the state has launched its own investigation, the Department of Human Services said.
State Rep. Kathy Watson (R., Bucks), who chairs the House Children and Youth Committee in Harrisburg, said she plans to examine how the system worked in Grace’s case and look for potential policy changes.
“I want to look to see that, as all the facts come out, were there places along the way where policies should’ve changed, the law should change?” she said earlier this month. “Is it somehow emblematic of flaws in a system?"
In Johnson’s view, Grace was failed every step of the way: by her biological family, the foster care system, and her adoptive parents.
“It’s just very grievous to look at that, because adoption did not provide the outcome that we all believe that it should have," said Johnson, a former social worker and an adoptive parent himself.
“When you remove children from their biological families, we’ve just got to do a better job as a country making sure that we put these children in safe places.”