When you're going through a divorce, some of the most contentious decisions couples often face are regarding who will have custody of the kids and how visitation will happen. In Pennsylvania, courts prefer when couples come to a mutual decision regarding custody matters. But when one parent faces abuse, mental health, or other allegations raising safety issues, the courts will determine “the best interests of the child.” Unfortunately, how courts enact this standard can sometimes lead to tragic results.
Kayden Mancuso's Death
In 2018, seven-year-old Kayden Mancuso was killed by her father Jeffrey in an apparent murder-suicide during a court-ordered visitation. According to news reports, a court psychological evaluation described Jeffrey Mancuso as having suicidal thoughts, depression, and violent tendencies. He also had previous convictions for assault. In the year before Kayden's death, her mother sought and received a protection from abuse order. However, Kayden's family believes that the court largely ignored the protection order and Jeffrey's violent history when ordering unsupervised visitation with Kayden depending on him seeking mental health treatment. Jeffrey Mancuso left a vindictive note on his daughter's body before killing himself.
Best Interests of the Child
In Pennsylvania, courts typically consider many factors when determining the “best interests of the child” in custody and visitation matters. These factors can include:
- Whether one party has a history of abuse and whether there is a continued risk of harm,
- Which parent is most likely to encourage frequent contact between the child and the non-custodial parent,
- The role and parental duties the parents performed for the child before separating,
- The need for stability and continuity in the child's life concerning education, family, extracurricular activities, and community life,
- The child's sibling relationships,
- The preference of the child based on their age and maturity,
- Which parent is more likely to maintain a stable, loving, and consistent relationship with the child and meet the child's emotional needs,
- Whether one parent has attempted to alienate the other parent from the child, and
- The ability of each parent to provide for appropriate childcare and care for the child.
This month, Pennsylvania legislators introduced Senate Bill 78, also known as Kayden's Law, to clarify custody law for the courts.
If passed, Kayden's law would:
- Implement Education and Training: The law would encourage courts to implement annual training courses for judges and court personnel on child abuse and domestic violence and its impact on children.
- Strengthen Custody and Visitation Factors: The law would revamp the factors courts consider when deciding custody and visitation matters.
- Consider Abuse History: The law would require courts to make a finding of any history of abuse or ongoing risk of abuse.
- Incorporate Abuse Risk into Custody Orders: The law would require that custody orders implement safety conditions and restrictions necessary to protect children.
While no court order or procedure can keep kids completely safe, the hope is that Kayden's Law will remind courts of the possible dangers at home when deciding child custody matters and require courts to implement protective measures.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento is an experienced family and criminal attorney handling cases throughout Pennsylvania. If you are facing a domestic violence charge or are embroiled in a child custody matter, he can help. Call 888.535.3686 today to schedule a consultation.