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Pennsylvania Government Watchdog To Probe Teen's Murder

Bucks County District Attorney, via AP
This combination of file photos provided on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017, by the Bucks County District Attorney shows Sara Packer, left, and Jacob Sullivan.

A Pennsylvania state government watchdog agency has launched an investigation into the horrific case of a 14-year-old girl who had extensive contact with the child welfare system before her 2016 rape, torture and murder, a lawmaker who requested the review announced Wednesday.

The Office of State Inspector General has agreed to look into whether the Department of Human Services acted properly in its handling of the Grace Packer case.

"It is obvious to anyone inside or outside government that she was failed by the system," said state Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "She was horrifically abused and then failed by the system every time something was brought to light. And we have got to get some answers."

Grace endured years of sexual, physical and emotional abuse before her death in a sweltering attic outside Philadelphia. An internal DHS probe has already found that county child welfare agencies had ample cause to remove her from the home but failed to do so.

The teenager's adoptive mother, Sara Packer, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced last month to life without parole for plotting her brutal death. A jury gave the death penalty to Sara Packer's boyfriend, Jacob Sullivan, who raped and strangled Grace while her mother watched. He had also pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and other charges. Sullivan and Sara Packer kept Grace's remains in cat litter for several months before dismembering the body and dumping it in a wooded area.

Kauffman and state Rep. Karen Boback, R-Luzerne, chairwoman of the Children and Youth Committee, noted in a letter to Inspector General Bruce Beemer that DHS has oversight responsiblity for county child welfare agencies. DHS is also supposed to investigate abuse allegations itself when the suspected perpetrator works for a county agency. Sara Packer was a former adoptions supervisor with Northampton County's children and youth agency.

"It's a matter of high public concern and urgency," said Clarke Madden, Beemer's spokesman. "We're going to put a lot of resources into it."

Beemer said in a response to Kauffman and Boback that the review could help the human services department "improve their operations."

DHS spokeswoman Ali Fogarty said the agency welcomes the investigation.

"Nothing is more integral to our mission than protecting children. We work closely with the inspector general and we welcome any effort to build upon the recommendations included in the state's report," she said.

Legislation introduced separately in the House last week would create a 17-member commission tasked with improving the state's child welfare system.