A Senate committee in Pennsylvania has passed bill for the second time that puts the health, welfare, and safety of a child above other factors in custody matters.
Senate Bill 78 – better known as Kayden’s Law – was reintroduced Monday and was unanimously elected from the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The committee unanimously approved the custody reform bill in September, but had to reintroduce it as the previous term had expired before the bill could be put to a vote in the Senate.
The legislation is named for Kayden Mancuso, a 7-year-old girl from Lower Makefield who was murdered by her birth father during an unattended overnight judicial visit in August 2018. The father then committed suicide.
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“What happened to Kayden was a heartbreaking tragedy, but unfortunately not unique,” said Senate judiciary Lisa Baker, a Republican whose district includes Wayne, Pike and Lucerne counties. “If courts fail to read the signs of domestic violence and give an abuser child custody or visitation rights, the consequences can be dire.”
In a co-sponsorship memo, Baker cited a review of 4,000 U.S. lawsuits that found the alleged perpetrator to win custody or unattended visits 81% of the time.
“Children need the law to protect their interests in custody proceedings, especially in cases where there are allegations of domestic violence or child sexual abuse. Far too often, courts overlook signs of abuse and rely on unscientific factors to make decisions that put a child’s life at risk, ”added Baker.
Cosponsor and Bucks County Senator Steven Santasiero, D-10 of Lower Makefield, said Monday that he was confident that the bill could be slated for a Senate vote in the “not too distant future”.
“In the simplest sense, this bill takes the law and puts the emphasis on child safety in custody disputes,” said Santasiero. “Giving more instructions to the courts because, frankly, under current law, they do not have enough instructions to rule on these very difficult situations.”
An accompanying law in the house would also have to be reintroduced unless the law was removed from the Senate. In this case, the Senate bill will be assigned a House committee that would have to approve it before it could get to the House floor, Santasiero said.
On Monday, Kayden’s mother, Kathryn Mancuso, said she was confident the bill will be incorporated into law this year.
“Lots of people are fed up with it,” she added.
The draft law aims to strengthen the factors that family judges take into account when deciding on custody issues and makes it clear that “the most important issue” is child protection.
Courts would first have to consider criminal convictions, criminal charges, child abuse and participation in protective services, as well as custody factors, and ensure that any custody decision includes safety conditions and restrictions where appropriate.
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It also encourages the state Supreme Court to conduct an annual education and training program for judges and relevant court staff on child abuse, adverse childhood experiences, domestic violence and its effects on children.
The legislature cannot pass a law that prescribes training for the judiciary.
Currently, Pennsylvania requires Common Pleas judges to consider 16 factors when considering custody or visiting and to explain decisions about them in final orders.
A parent’s violent and criminal conduct in the past is one of the factors that judges weigh up. However, the law considers these factors to be on par with other factors such as the distance between the parents’ homes or the availability of an extended family.
Kayden’s father, Jeffrey Mancuso, had a documented history of violent and unpredictable behavior, despite no allegations of abuse against Kayden. A psychological examination ordered by the court found him to have severe depressive disorder, moderate anxiety, and narcissistic and antisocial personality traits.
It recommended that the court make Mancuso “unattended” visits “dependent” on his psychiatric treatment, but the assigned judge did not require it in his final custody decision, issued three months before Kayden’s murder.
The murder brought new attention to problems within the state family court system, where life-changing decisions are often made behind closed doors and out of the public eye.
More:Kayden Mancuso’s mother is suing the Bucks County judge, others who she says could not prevent her daughter’s death
Kathryn and Brian Sherlock, Kayden’s stepfather, have filed an unlawful death lawsuit in Bucks County Court alleging that state, local, and state systems did not protect their daughter.
The couple allege in the lawsuit that the defendants violated Kayden’s civil rights by failing to follow the recommendation of a court-appointed appraiser, ignoring evidence that Mancuso was mentally unstable, and refusing to take action to protect the girl.
“You didn’t do your job. If you are a hospital you will be held liable. If you are Costco, if you are ShopRite you will be held liable,” said Kathryn Sherlock. “You made decisions when I could and not see my daughter. You had a duty to protect her.”
Under the proposed Kayden Act, a judge may consider safety restrictions or safeguards if the court finds a history of abuse of the child or household member, including:
- Professional or non-professionally supervised custody;
- Restrictions on time of day or number of hours of custody;
- Appointment of a qualified professional advisor;
- Restrictions on custody;
- Any other safety conditions, restrictions, or safeguards necessary to ensure the child’s health and safety.
Under the law, when hearing a custody dispute, courts could consider an additional criminal conviction. These include:
- Simple attack;
- Recklessly endanger another person;
- Human trafficking;
- Involuntary bondage;
- Patronizing a victim of sexual bondage;
- Animal cruelty;
- Increased cruelty to animals;
- Animal fights;
- Possession of animal fighting paraphernalia.