In August 2018 seven year old Kayden Mancuso left her home in suburban Bucks County to visit her dad at his home in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia. Two years earlier Kayden’s mother had secured a Protection from Abuse Order. The order directed Kayden’s father to have no contact with her mom because of violence directed at the mother and grandmother. But the court also granted father partial custody on alternate weekends from Thursday to Monday. In May 2018 the court dialed that custody time back to alternate Saturdays and Sundays. When she was not returned after a visit on August 5, Kayden’s mother asked for police assistance. But when the door went unanswered the police related that they had no basis to break into the father’s home. The following morning  Kayden’s grandfather and stepfather returned to find the back door of the home open. Kayden’s body was inside. She had died of blunt force trauma and her father lay dead of a gunshot wound.

Jeff Mancuso certainly had problems. In 2010 the had pled guilty to simple assault. Two years later he was charged with aggravated assault where he bit off part of a man’s ear and was sentenced to 11.5 to 23 months. He had punched himself in the face. He had punched a family dog. His correspondence with Kayden’s school had resulted in the school banning him from their buildings. 

It took time but what the General Assembly has done is to try to amend the Child Custody Laws at 23 Pa.C.S. 5300 et seq. to beef up those provisions identifying and attempting to ameliorate abuse of children. The effort is genuine. But managing “abuse” is a very real challenge at many levels and the dry pages of a statute book do little to stop what happens in our homes and schools.

Let’s start with acknowledging that from the outset, Pennsylvania’s custody statute did not ignore this issue. The statutory factors courts were to consider in making a custody decision included “any other relevant” factors. Few if any judges are so insensitive as to have ever concluded that they could not consider toxic or violent conduct in a custody matter. This statute clarifies the matter by trying to broaden the definition of abuse and trying to augment the remedies. There are problems here as well. But, we digress.

One of the core problems families grapple with in the world of domestic abuse is acknowledging that it happens. Two centuries ago, Samuel Johnson wrote: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labor tends, and of which every desire prompts the prosecution.” Put concisely, we all dream of a happy life at home. And families tend to deny what they see, hear and sense or to hope that what they did experience will never happen again.

The data support this. In 2022, Pennsylvania processed 40,000 protection from abuse cases. We don’t have data on how many directly involved children, but, in a candid world, we need to acknowledge that a child who lives in a house harboring domestic violence is, at minimum, a collateral victim of the conduct they witness.

Meanwhile, in 47% of the cases processed, the person seeking protection fails to come to the hearing to prove their case or withdraws the allegation altogether. That statistic is stunning. People don’t file written documents under oath alleging physical danger out of whim. Yes, there are occasions when people will file an abuse case premised upon a desire to get their co-parent or domestic partner evicted. They will overstate facts, often in inept ways. But this writer has lived in the custody and abuse worlds for 34 years since the abuse law was first adopted and I recall no instance where an abuse claim was wholly concocted.

Yet nearly half of all filed cases disappear into jurisprudential oblivion. Why? Because in our quest to be “happy at home” we often close our eyes to what we saw. Sometimes it is a matter of economies. The message gets back to the petitioner. There will be financial consequences if the case goes forward. Another message often transmitted is more personal. “You want me out. Fine. I’m done. I don’t want to see you or the kids ever again. You want to destroy our family? Do it.” No threat here in a technical sense. But it drives a stake into the heart of “happy at home.” Older children can be pretty cold, concluding “That’s fine with me.” But young kids look longingly at a parent and ask “When’s mom/dad coming back? Is he/she alright?” Realize as well that many victims of domestic abuse come from backgrounds where violence and threats are normalized.

Then take a look at Kayden’s case. It seems to illustrate just how erratic is tolerated. Kayden was born in 2011. Her father was already facing charges for assault. Two years later we have aggravated assault charges-biting off another man’s ear. Yet it’s another two years before Kayden’s mom seeks her own protection. Under the Protection from Abuse laws protection is afforded to those who are in danger. Often children may witness violence and threats in a household, but judges are not quick to cut off contact between a parent and a child until and unless the child is directly in harm’s way. When a marriage dissolves, children are often the only glue that encourages their parents to be reasonable. But as we see, that’s a fragile proposition….often proved wrong over time.

But in Kayden’s case, while the court halted contact between father and mother, Kayden lived three years in an arrangement where her father had 30% custody. But when the judge reduced the time to alternate weekends only, it may well be that Jeff Mancuso’s switch was flipped. This is largely speculation. To fully understand would require a thorough review of the record. However, it’s pretty common to see a person lose control when their custodial time with a child is reduced.

The typical and seeming common-sense answer is one now written into the statute. It’s called supervised visitation. On its face it seems like a perfect solution. Until you see it close up. There are two versions of this. The inexpensive one is that a parent goes to a church or other public facility and sits in a room with his child and a bunch of other parents with similar situations while “someone” is tasked with watching everyone in the room. Some of the parents are violent. Others have histories of sexual misconduct with minors or otherwise. Some have addictions that can trigger frightening episodes of withdrawal. Then there’s the limits on what you can do in a church or school cafeteria. Usually, it means watch your child crayon for two hours.

For those with deep pockets, you can hire someone to follow you and the child around while you go to the mall or play in a park. Better, but expensive. Would you want to spend your Saturday following a 41 year old man as he tries to amuse a second grader daughter? Will you intervene to prevent him from walking her into a public women’s room in a setting where you know he has two priors and an abuse case. Then, there’s the matter of your own safety in addition to Kayden’s. We can write supervised visits into a law but we can’t make people take the job of supervisor.

There are programs. Governments are trying. Unfortunately, despite best efforts both the supervised parent and the child hate the programs. There is nothing to do that a parent or child can share enjoyably for more than an hour. Supervised parents report that it feels like prison. Kids report the set up is “boring.”

In the end, we have a bill and it has tightened some definitions and suggested some remedies. But, as we have written in the past when discussing physical abuse by parents, teachers, clergy, coaches and trainers there is no substitute for vigilance and willingness to see situations for what they are.

The law was signed on Friday June 14. The text is below.