By all accounts, Kayden Mancuso was a special little girl. Her friends and family all had the most wonderful things to say about her. She left a lasting and positive impression. Sadly, we will never know what Kayden might have accomplished in her life because her abusive father and a court that routinely fails to safeguard children in contested custody cases took her precious life.
This should have been an easy case for the courts. It would have been even easier if the judge understood that in abuse cases the best interests of the child must focus on their health and safety. In one of his many crimes the father bit off part of a victims’ ear. He had a long history of violence and had been banned from Kayden’s school because of his harassment of school personnel. The evaluator found serious mental health issues including major depression and potential suicide risk. Kayden said she did not feel safe being alone with her father.
The Saunders’ Study is critical research from the U.S. Department of Justice designed to determine whether judges, lawyers and evaluators had the necessary expertise to respond to domestic violence cases. One of the recommendations is that court professionals need training in risk assessment. There are specific behaviors that are associated with higher risk of lethality. It is a vital issue that is rarely discussed in custody cases because so few court professionals have this knowledge.
In this case, the abusive father assaulted the mother while she was pregnant, harmed a dog and engaged in stalking. All of these are clear signs of increased lethality risk. This is something the judge should have known and considered before sending Kayden on her fatal visitation.
Another subject Saunders found courts must understand is the impact of domestic violence on children. In justifying his fatal mistake, Judge Jeffrey Trauger emphasized that the father had not physically assaulted the child.
The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Research from the CDC found that most of the harm caused to children is not from the immediate physical injuries but living with the fear that leads to the worst kind of stress. In other words even if the father never assaulted the child living with the fear she expressed was likely to cause a lifetime of health and social problems.
Unfortunately the court made the common mistake of asking the victims to accommodate the abusive father instead of forcing him to change his behavior and in this case get treatment for his mental health problems if he wanted unprotected visitation with his daughter.
Kathryn Sherluck, Kayden’s mother, repeatedly tried to protect her daughter by restricting the father’s visitation, but the judge is part of a court system that does not know how to recognize the risk to children.
The Tragedy Involving Kayden Is Not an Exception
The courts have a fundamental misconception about contested custody cases. Most cases involve two safe and loving parents and so the cases are settled. The problem is the 3.8% of cases that, like this case require a trial and much more. Court professionals are taught to view contested cases as “high conflict” by which they mean the parents are angry at each other and act out in ways that harm the children. This is why courts seek to pressure the parties to cooperate and learn better communication skills.
In reality, a large majority of these cases involve domestic violence in which the most dangerous abusers, men who believe she has no right to leave, use custody tactics to regain control or punish the mother for leaving.
The abusers believe they are entitled to use any tactic necessary to regain control which is why these cases are so dangerous. It appears it was this sentiment that was expressed by the killer-father in his last note. The court’s flawed response means they are pressuring the victim to interact with her abuser. This is dangerous both to the mother and children.
Given the lack of court understanding it is not surprising that in the last ten years over 600 children involved in contested custody and related matters have been murdered, mostly by abusive fathers using these tactics.
The decision of Judge Trauger to grant unprotected access to a dangerous father is all-too-common and was part of many of the 600 murders.
Dr. Dianne Bartlow conducted follow-up research in communities where some of these tragedies were committed. She asked judges and court administrators the question that should now be considered in Pennsylvania. What reforms have you created in response to the tragedy in your community? The overwhelming answer Dr. Bartlow received was none because they all assumed the tragedy in their community was an exception.
Response from Pennsylvania Legal Community
It is normal for people to respond defensively when bad decisions lead to harmful consequences. Unfortunately this is too often true even in the face of unspeakable tragedy. Surely the judges and lawyers in the community are devastated by the death of Kayden and do not want anything like this to ever happen again.
Nevertheless, the local bar association put out a directive encouraging lawyers to defend the judge and the system. Stephen Heckman, a court administrator put out a statement defending the response in Kayden’s case and some lawyers similarly defended Judge Trauger.
I find it troubling that those making these statements appear unfamiliar with current research and repeat common mistaken assumptions that lead to these tragedies. I hope that over time they will investigate more, study the research and look instead for what they can do better. Do they really want to suggest that tragedies like this are inevitable and they have no ability to prevent it?
The Solution Is The Safe Child Act
Fortunately, Pennsylvania is one of three states that have introduced the Safe Child Act. Instead of relying on subjective opinions relied on by the courts and legislators, The Safe Child Act is comprehensive legislation based on current scientific research that could have saved Kayden’s life and make thousands of other children in Pennsylvania safer and healthier.
The health and safety of children would become the first priority in all custody and visitation decisions.
The judge in this case knew there was a risk but was more concerned with keeping the father in the child’s life. It is beneficial for the child to have a relationship with her father but given his history of violence; serious mental health issues and the fear caused to the child and the mother she depended on, the risk far outweighed any benefits. Significantly the same practices that would prevent a murder like this, more often will save children from exposure to abuse, fear and stress that cause a lifetime of health and other risks. Today these critical issues are often ignored or misunderstood.
Courts would be required to integrate current scientific research.
The problem is that courts developed practices to respond to domestic violence at a time when no research was available. Many of the standard practices were developed based on assumptions that proved wrong. We now have a specialized body of research that would make it easier for courts to recognize and respond to abuse issues. Unfortunately the misinformation is deeply ingrained and many professionals benefit financially from the outdated practices.
Today a bogus theory that was developed not from any research but from the personal beliefs of someone who made many public statements supporting sex between adults and children has more influence on our courts than peer-reviewed scientific research from highly credible institutions like the CDC and National Institute of Justice. The courts could use this research and save children like Kayden but inertia, ignorance and financial advantage have undermined the needed reforms.
The courts should use a multi-disciplinary approach particularly in abuse cases.
This is one of the recommendations from the Saunders’ Study. Today courts rely almost exclusively on mental health professionals. This works fine when the issue is mental illness or psychology, but poorly when the issue is domestic violence or child sexual abuse. Significantly domestic violence is not caused by mental illness and even with some workshops; most court professionals do not have the necessary expertise to handle an abuse case. Using a mental health professional for all issues is the equivalent of a patient relying on a general practitioner when they have cancer or heart disease.
In all cases with reports or evidence of abuse, the court should conduct an early hearing limited to the abuse issues.
This gives the court a better chance to recognize the dangers from abuse without all the distractions abusers and their advocates use. If one of the parents is abusive and the other is safe the outcome is easy. The safe parent has custody and the abuser initially is limited to supervised visits. This means cases that now take many months or years can be resolved in a few hours. This saves enormous time and money both for the courts and litigants. Best of all it will help courts avoid the kind of mistakes made in Kayden’s case.
Judges and other court professionals need training and retraining.
They will need to learn about current research that will help them recognize abuse and respond appropriately. They also need retraining to unlearn the misinformation they have heard throughout their careers. Judge Trauger’s assumption that the father was safe as long as he hadn’t assaulted his daughter is the kind of mistake they need to unlearn. Many of the defensive statements by the legal community were similarly based on beliefs contradicted by current research.
The state should provide additional funding so that domestic violence agencies can play a greater role in helping custody courts.
The Saunders’ Study found that domestic violence advocates have more of the specific knowledge courts need in abuse cases than judges, lawyers and evaluators. Accordingly they need to be more involved in training court professionals on domestic violence issues and advocates should be trained to serve as expert witnesses. This will make this expertise more available in individual cases and at a lower cost.
The murder of Kayden is an unspeakable tragedy that could have been prevented. The one thing we know for sure is that if her life and her death do not lead to necessary reforms there will be more children whose lives are cut short. I cannot fathom how that can possibly be an acceptable response. Kayden touched people in her life because of who she was and has touched people she never knew who read about our failure to protect her.
I hope the legislators in Pennsylvania will look at her picture when they decide whether or not to save the next Kayden.
Child Custody Evaluators’ Beliefs About Domestic Abuse Allegations: Their Relationship to Evaluator Demographics, Background, Domestic Violence Knowledge and Custody Visitation Recommendations Author: Daniel G. Saunders, Ph.D., Kathleen C. Faller, Ph.D., Richard M. Tolman, Ph.D.