Child custody and visitation issues can be contentious, emotional, and divisive. When two parents cannot agree on a custody arrangement, the Pennsylvania courts decide for them, taking the best interests of the child into account. However, a child custody incident that took place in 2018 made many parents and lawmakers question how the courts decided the child's “best interest,” and a new law recently passed by the Pennsylvania Senate seeks to address it.
The Incident that Inspired Kayden's Law
In August 2018, seven-year-old Kayden Mancuso was murdered by her biological father, Jeffrey Mancuso, on a court-ordered, unsupervised visit. Jeffrey then committed suicide. He had a documented history of violent and erratic behavior and had been diagnosed with depression, but none of his past incidents involved his daughter, Kayden. In the year before her death, Kayden's mother, Kathryn Sherlock, had sought a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order for her daughter against Jeffrey.
During the custody proceedings, a court-ordered psychological evaluation diagnosed Jeffrey with major depressive order, moderate anxious distress, and narcissistic and antisocial personality traits. The evaluation also recommended that he only be allowed unsupervised visits with Kayden if he entered mental health treatment, but the judge assigned to the case did not require treatment in the final custody order.
The New Restrictions for Custody in Pennsylvania
Since Kayden's death, Kathryn Sherlock has come out against the flaws in the Pennsylvania family court system and pushed hard for the passage of Senate Bill 78, also called Kayden's Law. The bill passed the Senate on June 24, with a vote of 46-4. The new legislation requires judges to consider criminal convictions in custody disputes and recommends child and domestic abuse training for judges and court personnel across the state. Ultimately, the new restrictions aim to put the best interests of children firmly ahead of parental rights in Pennsylvania custody cases.
Kayden's Law will also strengthen factors courts must consider in custody and visitation matters and require custody orders to contain restrictions and safety conditions to protect children from abuse.
Other Implications of Kayden's Law
With greater scrutiny on past history of abuse, one parent in a custody battle could use the new restrictions vindictively. When a parent petitions the court for a PFA order, the actions that are considered “abuse” could be ambiguous, but the court may grant it anyway to err on the side of caution. A PFA, even if granted for ambiguous or exaggerated reasons, may be considered a past conviction of abuse. This factor outweighs others that the judge considers in a custody case under Kayden's Law.
Why You Need a Family Law Attorney
Overall, the new changes brought by Kayden's Law are overwhelmingly positive. They'll help ensure greater protections for children across the state. With custody laws changing, it's important to have an attorney who understands the new rules and can help you make sense of it. If you are in the middle of a contentious child custody matter, attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm can help. Call today at 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation.