In a year of considerable disruption for local family courts, the biggest custody story in Pennsylvania family law this year was the tragic ongoing story of a bereaved Sherlock family who protested for legal change outside of the Bucks County Justice Center on what would have been the birthday of their murdered child. This tragic case has lingered in the public and judicial consciousness and in the form of a bill awaiting a vote in the state Senate may yet cause real change to Pennsylvania family law.
Seven-year-old Kayden Mancuso, who lived with her mother and stepfather in Langhorne, was murdered by her father on a court-ordered visit back in 2018. Since this tragedy, the child-protection bill “Kayden’s Law” has been making its way through the Pennsylvania legislature, and the child's mother and stepfather have this month taken steps to sue the local and court authorities for their role in the child's death. The legal changes that the bill would usher in would bolster checks in custody decisions on any abuse risk and have judges strengthen safety conditions and restrictions as necessary. These changes could have a major impact on families in very contentious custody battles where the relationship between parents has broken down.
According to the Buck's County Courier Times, the child's mother, Kathy Sherlock and her husband filed a lawsuit this month alleging wrongful death against a Bucks Country Judge and a number of other county, local, and state authorities in a lawsuit, including the Philadelphia police department.
The parent's lawsuit argues that they ignored evidence that Mancuso was mentally unstable. The thinking behind this “Kayden's” Law bill is on this basis; that the father's violent temperament should have outweighed the assumed benefits of unsupervised time with both parents and more stringent restrictions and conditions put in place.
The “Kayden's Law” Bill
Senator Steve Santarsiero introduced Senate Bill 868 in October 2019.
In September this year, the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee voted it through with unanimous support, and the bill now awaits a vote in the Senate.
Broader Impact on Pennsylvania Custody Law
The Family Court quite rightly endeavors to ensure the child has a relationship with both of their parents, but of course, there have to be appropriate safety checks in place when weighing up a child's best interest. The chilling story of Kayden Mancuso will likely lead judges to consider the risk of abuse very carefully whether or not the bill makes law. In cases where the parents have a troubled relationship, this new bill could tip that careful balance slightly away from an emphasis on shared care towards caution granting visitation rights.
One thing to be wary of is that in a very acrimonious custody case where there is a risk of parental alienation, a vindictive parent might be better equipped to take advantage of this change to make unfounded abuse allegations. Should one parent secure a Protection From Abuse Order, with these new changes that could be used to block contact with the child, the evidence of an abuse conviction outweighing the benefits of contact in the eyes of the court. This behavior is clearly never in a child's best interests, so if faced with a vengeful co-parent, speedy legal action is absolutely vital.
Are You Going Through a Custody Battle?
Custody battles are highly sensitive proceedings. You will want to make sure you have a skilled family law attorney on your side who can fight for the best interests of your children. Attorney Joseph D. Lento cares passionately about family life and will work tirelessly to ensure you and your family aren't victim to vindictive accusations or torn apart by proceedings. Call 888-535-3686 today to schedule a consultation.