Reps. Chris Quinn (R-Media) and Craig Staats (R-Quakertown) announced a legislative package to better protect children in the Pennsylvania child welfare system on Sept. 15 at the Bucks County Justice Center.
The bills were crafted in honor of Grace Packer, a 14-year-old girl murdered in Bucks County by her adoptive mother and her adoptive mother’s boyfriend in 2016.
“These three pieces of legislation introduced in her memory are important steps in protecting kids like Grace,” Quinn said. “For more than five years, there has been plenty of talk but too little action to address the gaping holes exposed by Grace’s death in our child welfare system.”
“We’ve learned a lot from this tragedy, most importantly, that the system in Pennsylvania has flaws and must be fixed to protect our most vulnerable children better,” Staats said. “Grace ventured in and out of the foster care system through Bucks, Montgomery, and Lehigh counties. But, unfortunately, she ultimately fell through the unacceptable cracks in our system. Our aim with this legislation is to prevent another child from being lost in this system and condemned to cruelty and even death.”
In July 2016, Grace was beaten and raped by Sara Packer’s live-in boyfriend, Jacob Sullivan, while Sara Packer watched. Strangled the next day by Sullivan, Grace’s body was dismembered and dumped in Luzerne County, where hunters found it months later.
“Her life ended in a house of horrors that became a hell on Earth,” Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub told the jury during Sullivan’s sentencing hearing. “To him, she was less than human. A thing. Something to act out his fantasies on.”
Unfortunately, the lack of communication between county child welfare agencies impeded authorities’ discovery of that abuse. An Office of State Inspector General investigation commenced in 2019 and is still ongoing.
Grace was adopted as a toddler by Sara Packer, a county adoption worker, and her then-husband David. As a result of the frequent moves, multiple county child welfare agencies (CCWA) and contractors of those agencies were involved in the supervision of Grace’s placement or had contact with the family.
The legislative package includes three bills. House Bill 1843 would require the implementation of the statewide child welfare case management system. Mandated by a 2014 law, the system still has not been put into use. The Commonwealth of Virginia, which like Pennsylvania, had county-based child welfare agencies, has had a statewide case management system since the late 1990s.
House Bill 1844 would increase the requirement to retain records in most cases from one year or 10 years to 30 years; eradicate the provision providing for expungement for a perpetrator who was a minor at the time of the alleged abuse upon that individual reaching age 23, and eliminate much of the discretion the secretary of Human Services can exercise in expunging records.
House Bill 1845 would define a “valid” report in the PA Child Protective Services Law.
Staats and Quinn were joined at the press conference by Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub, who prosecuted Sara Packer and Jacob Sullivan. First-degree murder convictions were secured against both.
Quinn said, “We are resolved to work on these bills to ensure no other child in the Pennsylvania Child Welfare System is subjected to the horrors Grace Packer endured. These children need our care, concern, and a system that works to protect them, and we are hopeful these bills in Grace Packer’s memory will better secure the protection they deserve.”
“This proposed legislation is long overdue. I commend Representatives Quinn and Staats for moving forward with this legislation despite not reporting the systemic failures that the inspector general promised us over two years ago,” Weintraub said. “Grace Packer was murdered five years ago. Unfortunately, the child protective services system failed in its mission to protect her.
“We can’t wait any longer. Our most vulnerable children are counting on us to keep them safe,” concluded Weintraub.
All three bills have been referred to the House Children and Youth Committee.