Davis fighting to improve child custody issues

A bill proposed by Rep. Tina Davis would require courts to use a current, evidence-based approach when working with domestic violence and child sexual abuse issues

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

A vital discussion: Rep. Tina Davis hosted a public hearing on Monday, Sept. 17, at the Middletown Township Municipal Building in Langhorne to discuss child custody issues. Davis was joined by policy committee chairman Mike Sturla and state legislators from across the commonwealth. Samantha Bambino / Times Photo

It’s impossible to imagine a world in which adult abuse victims are forced to visit their assaulter on a weekly basis. It’s unthinkable. But, according to a recent national study by George Washington Law, this is often the case for child victims whose abuser is a parent. In a review of 4,000 domestic court cases, the abuser wins custody or unsupervised visitation 81 percent of the time.

“It has gotten so bad that attorneys regularly advise safe parents to not speak of the abuse in the family courts because it increases the likelihood they will lose their children to the abuser,” said Danielle Pollack, ambassador of CHILD USA.

Attempting to remediate this all-too-common issue is Rep. Tina Davis, who hosted a public hearing on Monday, Sept. 17, at the Middletown Township Municipal Building in Langhorne to discuss child custody issues. Davis was joined by policy committee chairman Mike Sturla and state legislators from across the commonwealth to hear testimony from those affected by the current state of affairs in Pennsylvania’s family courts.

The discussion revolved around two bills — Davis’ H.B. 956, which would require courts to use a current, evidence-based approach when working with domestic violence and child sexual abuse issues, and Rep. Mark Rozzi’s H.B. 2058, co-sponsored by Davis, which would improve custody and visitation adjudications. Davis and Rozzi have been working on getting their respective bills passed for four years, which she said is far too long for such an urgent issue.

“As a lawmaker, I am deeply concerned by how the courts fail to read the signs of domestic abuse and, as a result, award the custody of a child to their abuser,” she said. “We must strengthen child custody laws to prevent this from happening again.”

Someone who understands the urgency of the issue far too well is Kathryn Sherlock, mother of 7-year-old Kayden Mancuso, who was murdered at the hands of her biological father during a court-ordered visit in August. Sherlock told Davis how six weeks ago, she was perfectly happy. She had three healthy children, a thriving career and a new puppy.

“Unfortunately, there was always one thing lurking in the back of my life,” she said.

That constant, looming shadow was Jeffrey Mancuso, Kayden’s father who was granted regular, unsupervised visits by the court. Professional evaluations stated Jeffrey had suicidal thoughts, lack of remorse, depression and violent tendencies, but all of this was ignored. Sherlock pleaded with the court to revoke its decision, but her lawyer insisted there was nothing she could do. The law is the law.

Last month, Kayden became the 647th child of a divorced or separated couple to be murdered by a parent since 2008. Her father attacked her with a 35-pound dumbbell before taking his own life.

“One is too many,” Sherlock said. “In the back of my mind, I knew this would happen, but I prayed that it wouldn’t. But I was wrong. I was dead wrong.”

After her tragic loss, which Sherlock said was 100 percent preventable, she discovered an online community of “safe parents” whose children were killed at the hands of their former spouse or partner. One Facebook group includes 91 mothers and one father.

“If we’re not willing to protect our children and they’re not our priority, what are we doing? What is the purpose? I don’t understand,” Sherlock said.

Davis and attendees at the hearing then heard from Pollack, of CHILD USA, who provided a perspective from a child welfare organization. Pollack, who has witnessed firsthand the court system for several years, said what happened to Kayden was heartbreaking but not unsurprising. Time and again, she has seen partial or full custody granted to the abuser, despite the terror shown by the child when the safe parent is forced to drop them off.

“Children will cling to them and beg to be kept safe. Children will cower at the door, sometimes for the duration of these visits. For an hour, twice a week, for an entire weekend or whatever the family court ordered,” she said, adding that these children will often disassociate, perform poorly in school and fail to bond easily with peers.

According to Pollack, a large issue is that the judges ruling these orders aren’t properly trained. She explained that somehow, unscientific theories about child sexual abuse became adopted into the family court system. For example, many hold fast to the belief in “parental alienation syndrome,” which states that safe parents are actually vengeful, and are using false abuse allegations to punish exes and ensure custody for themselves. In these cases, the abuser usually wins.

The legislation proposed by Rozzi would only allow for scientifically valid theories in the family court, and would train judges in evidence-based approaches every three years. Pollack brought up the fact that doctors are unable to practice in areas they’re not specialized in. A podiatrist would never perform heart surgery, so in her opinion, a judge shouldn’t be permitted to rule in family courts unless they’re specially trained.

At the Bucks County Courthouse on Oct. 6, CHILD USA will host a pilot training program for judges, which will feature experts from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and attorneys who have worked on child abuse cases for decades. If all goes well, the goal is to replicate the training throughout the state and ultimately seal the court system gaps that perpetrators take advantage of.

Testimony was also heard from Amy Tielemans, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy; Diane Ellis-Marseglia, Bucks County Commissioner; Lauren Bucksner, managing attorney and director of legal services at A Woman’s Place; Meg Groff, consulting attorney at A Woman’s Place; and Frank Cervone, executive director of Support Center for Child Advocates. A full video and more information can be found at pahouse.com/policycommittee. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com