'I can’t let Kayden to have died in vain. I have to do it': A mother's vow to protect kids – Bucks County Courier Times

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There are things Kathryn Sherlock still can’t do.
She can’t visit the New Jersey beaches her 7-year-old daughter so loved. She can’t visit the grave where her little white casket is buried either.
But there’s something Sherlock has found she can do since Kayden Mancuso was brutally murdered three years ago by her mentally unstable biological father on a court-approved, unsupervised visit at his home during a contentious custody battle: 
She can speak publicly and passionately in her daughter’s memory, on her behalf, in the singular pursuit of keeping even one child from dying the way Kayden did.
She can spread the message through the media and the state legislature about the more than 800 children nationwide who’ve been killed by a parent or guardian during circumstances involving divorce, separation, custody, visitation, or child support.
She can remind everyone that of the 73 children in Pennsylvania killed from abuse in 2020, and the 115 nearly killed, the perpetrator was almost always a parent or parental figure. 
“The laws today don’t adequately protect children in custody cases,” Sherlock says. “That has to change.”
And so, Sherlock speaks, even when she doesn’t want to, even when she feels like she can’t. As equal parts grieving mom and child protection advocate, she speaks for Kayden and for all at-risk children in similar custody battles.
“My daughter loved life,” Sherlock says. “She was special. One of the happiest life-loving kids ever. There are days in life I don’t want to do it, keep speaking, keep pushing for that law. But Kayden loved life. Who am I to quit on her?” 
Kathryn Sherlock is seated at the dining room table in her spacious Yardley home. Late-morning light bathes the white-painted room, casting a glow upon the woman and illuminating framed family photos perched on tables and dotted on walls.
The silence is broken by the scurrying into the room by two of her and husband Brian’s four children: Blake, 4, wearing a motorcycle helmet and jacket, and Kayce, 1 ½, wearing a head full of tangled golden locks.
Then the 41-year-old emergency room nurse, the one with so much healing left to do, begins to speak. She invites you into the living room of her soul and remembers her little girl.
The artsy one who loved to dance and sing. The talented one who played softball, basketball, baseball, soccer, and performed gymnastics. The spirited one who made videos of herself playing dress-up and belting out tunes to the heavens. The loving one who rushed to hug her little brothers just because. The one who would be 11 years old and in sixth grade now.
The light of Sherlock’s life. A light dimmed to darkness.
Sherlock details the history of Jeffrey Mancuso’s mental illness and still wonders why a Bucks County court allowed him unsupervised visitation with their daughter. He was diagnosed by a court-ordered psychiatrist as narcissistic, depressed, antisocial, and with suicidal ideation. He also had a long history of assault charges across several states, abused alcohol and prescription drugs, was expelled from high school for punching teachers, assaulted his own mother in Kayden’s presence, spat upon family members, bit off part of a man’s ear during an altercation at a Philadelphia bar, and even abused the family dog. 
“Despite all that evidence, he (Bucks County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey G. Trauger) gave him unsupervised visitation,” Sherlock says. “How does that happen? He was a threat, violent, unstable.” 
A monster, as Mancuso’s own sister, Allyson, had described him? Crazy?
She nods. 
Gianficaro: Bucks County judge must live with consequences of Kayden Mancuso ruling
Kayden’s Law: PA Senate passes Kayden’s Law, mandating judges put child safety first in custody judgements
On Saturday morning, Aug. 4, 2018, Kathryn Sherlock kissed Kayden goodbye before her husband drove the child to Mancuso’s home in Manayunk, 50 minutes away.
It was the last time she would see her daughter alive.
When Mancuso hadn’t brought Kayden back to the Sherlocks by 6 p.m., as mandated in the visitation order, Kathryn and Brian drove to his home, around 10:30 p.m. They knocked on the door, but got no answer. Worried, they called Philadelphia Police, who didn’t enter the home to learn why Mancuso hadn’t returned the child to them because, according to Homicide Capt. John Ryan at the time, the responding officers didn’t deem the situation an emergency.
The next morning, Brian Sherlock and Tom Giglio, Kathryn’s father, returned to Mancuso’s home.
Entering through an unlocked back door, they were horrified at what they saw.
Kayden was lying dead near the front door, having been struck four times in the back of the head with a 35-pound dumbbell, medical examiners would later reveal. Her head was covered with a plastic bag and secured around her neck with an iPhone charger cord.
On her back was a two-page suicide note, placed there by Mancuso. The revised last paragraph: “You all get what you deserve.” After killing his daughter, Mancuso went upstairs to his bedroom, tied a belt around his neck, inhaled nitrous oxide for sedation to prevent him from struggling, and hanged himself. 
“It’s just not right that she’s still not here,” Sherlock says, shaking her head and sadly gazing downward. “She should still be here.”
Imagine the pain of scraping open wounds that will not fully heal in order to help protect other at-risk children. That is Sherlock.
She relates the many years of custody battles with Mancuso, with whom she was never married, that were rife with physical threats toward her by him, protection from abuse orders issued after he threatened to kill her, and multiple appearances in county court regarding visitation time with their daughter. 
“If someone had just listened to me, just one person — a cop, a judge, a child protective service worker, someone — about how dangerous it was to leave Kayden alone with her father, she would be alive today,” Sherlock says, her voice rising. “The court wouldn’t believe me about him, how dangerous he was. They said he didn’t physically harm her, so he should have the right to be with her. I knew better. They decided his right to see our daughter outweighed the real risk to Kayden’s life.
“My life will never be the same. My family will never be the same. Kayden should be here. I know there are so many other parents fighting this same fight. I’ve heard from them, asking me to help them with their own custody problems, telling me stories of abuse, the courts not listening to them. They all say they don’t want their child to be the next Kayden. I know what they fear. I feared it. Nobody listened. 
“So, if becoming an advocate, to hopefully get a law passed to strengthen child protection laws, so that the child’s welfare comes above all else if one parent has been evaluated to be a risk, if that saves one child, if that spares one family from going through what we do, it will all be worth it.”
Sherlock and her family have created a nonprofit, Kayden’s Korner, to advocate for legislative changes to child custody protection laws. Its stated mission: To effect judicial reform of the family court system through the education of government to the signs of domestic abuse, shine a light on the impact of mental illness, and lobby government to make the health and safety of children the singular concern of the court system. 
Sherlock believes current child custody protection laws do not adequately protect the rights of children.
“All I’m saying is, let’s see what’s wrong with the system and try to fix it,” she says. “For example, if we had 13,000 Teslas that went wrong, wouldn’t the company change things to fix it? I’m a nurse. I know that when we have something wrong in health care, we look at it and do things to fix it.”
And so, Sherlock soldiers on. One version of Kayden’s Law, Pennsylvania Senate Bill 78, was passed by the legislative body in June. 
However, passage of House Bill 1587, does not seem as certain. 
Last month, during a subcommittee hearing in Harrisburg, judges and legislators raised concern about the lack of public funding for supervised visitation.
Some also felt Kayden’s murder was an anomaly, a blip in a law that is fine as written. Many reasons were given why the laws can’t be strengthened; few how to strengthen them. 
Judge Katherine Platt, of Chester County, testified she believed requiring supervision during visitation “often telegraphs to the child that there’s something wrong with that parent.” Judges Daniel Clifford, of Montgomery County, and John Foradora, of Jefferson County, who also testified, agreed.
Provisions of Kayden’s Law in Pennsylvania were also added this spring to a federal Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021.
Tom Giglio is in heaven. Settled in his arms is his newest grandchild, Kennedy Kay, 22 days old, Sherlock’s fifth child. The child has a shock of dark hair and considerably more beauty. Love pours down from her grandfather’s face as he watches her sleep. Yet as his daughter recounts that day he found Kayden dead, Giglio slowly closes his eyes, the painful memory fresh as yesterday. 
“I sometimes ask myself why we’re doing all this, trying to get this law passed,” Giglio said. “This won’t bring Kayden back, and it seems there are so many people in charge of the law who just don’t seem to care.” 
Giglio hands the newborn to his daughter Heather, and leaves the room. Sherlock watches her father walk away, then shares how Kayden’s murder has impacted him. 
“He visits Kayden’s gravesite every Sunday,” she says. “He brings flowers for her, cleans off her headstone. She’s at All Saints Cemetery (in Newtown). He goes; I can’t.” 
Where Sherlock goes is to places that she’d rather not be.
Her advocacy has taken her before state legislators in Harrisburg, a meeting with Gov. Tom Wolf, and to being advised by national child custody protection advocates like Danielle Pollack, policy manager for the National Family Violence Law Center at The George Washington University Law School, in Washington, D.C. 
“We’ve been with Kathy since the beginning,” said Pollack, who has testified on behalf of Kayden’s Law. “It takes a unique kind of strength to do what she’s doing, a unique kind of courage. A lot of people when this happens to them, they are in total shock and go underground. They don’t talk to anyone, they feel betrayed, and they don’t take action or speak out. 
“But there’s a handful of people — Kathy is a leading one — who really have strong sense of justice. They are so clear about what went wrong in their case, and so clear about how possible it is that it can happen to other children, and how they feel doing it in honor of their child whose death could have been prevented, they move into action so it won’t happen to other children.
“For the moms who do this, like Kathy, acting out of grief and love for children, is remarkable. There’s something beyond what the justice system can do. There’s a higher sense of justice they seek. They’ve lived it firsthand — the failure of justice and a system problem. They do this as a way to honor their child and all children, and, in many cases, as a way to find some semblance of peace. Well, I don’t know if peace is the right word. Maybe it’s to have a sense of purpose.” 
Since 2016, at least two dozen similar cases to Kayden’s — in which a parent killed a child after the other parent raised concerns about abuse during a custody dispute — have made headlines across the country.
There’s no official government tally of these deaths and no national data on how courts handle custody cases with abuse allegations. But experts say in every state, judges have significant power in custody cases and their decisions are rarely overturned. The judges, however, are often untrained in the dynamics of abuse and trauma or how to evaluate whether a child could be in danger. 
“I just want people to know how messed up the system is and why we need to change it,” Sherlock says. “Judges need to be trained about this issue. The media continues to ask me to speak about child protection. I’m usually terrible at it. I used to skip (high) school the day we had public speaking. 
“But when this happened to Kayden, something sparked inside me. I can’t explain it. It emboldened me. Something needs to be done. I can’t let Kayden to have died in vain. I have to do it. I just can’t explain how it drives me.” 
Her sister can. Heather Giglio recalls a time when she and her two sisters were children and each wanted a cookie before dinner. 
“When mom said we couldn’t have a cookie, I said OK,” Giglio says. “My sister, Meghan, said, ‘OK, but then can I have something else, a different snack?’ But not Kathy. She demanded a cookie. Her mind was set. She wanted what she wanted. She didn’t back down. She doesn’t back down. 
“So, what Kathy’s doing here with Kayden’s Law — talking in Harrisburg, challenging politicians to do the right thing, making speeches, challenging judges, going on national TV — doesn’t surprise me. That’s her. She doesn’t back down for anybody when she knows the cause is right.”
Kathryn Sherlock wasn’t going to speak at Kayden’s funeral Mass. She had lost her little girl in the most unimaginable way. She didn’t believe she had the strength to address the family and friends inside St. John the Evangelist Church in Lower Makefield, without collapsing in tears in grief.
She sat frozen in a front pew, listening to her husband share recollections of Kayden. He held up a note Kayden had printed about Toys R Us, complimenting the company on what a great toy store it is, eliciting laughter from the gathering. Comic relief piercing the sadness but for a moment. 
The child’s casket, colored angel white and chosen by Sherlock, was positioned a few feet to her mother’s right. As her husband was nearing the end of his talk, something inside Kathryn Sherlock stirred.
Something unanticipated.
Something moved her, perhaps a nudge from above. She rose from the pew and walked as best she could to the pulpit. She had found the strength to speak she doubted she ever would.
“I stand here alone right now,” Sherlock said. “But I’m not alone in what happened to Kayden and will continue to fight for how this case should have been different. … I feel in this case it would have taken only one person to listen to me, one person not to slam the door in my face, one person not to tell me I’m crazy. Just one person. Only one person, from the cops, the judges, the lawyers, child protective services, to all those I called on. It literally would have only taken one person.” 
Now, the one person is Sherlock. 
She and Heather believed they had the ingredients to strengthen child custody protection laws. What they needed was someone to show them the instructions. They found them in Rep. Perry Warren of Newtown. 
“I got an email from Heather asking to meet with them,” said Warren D-31. “I felt a particular closeness to that family because I also lost a child, Peter, to an accident when he was 3 ½. They asked how they should go from here. We met with Rep. Davis, who had written a child custody bill which had been rewritten and rewritten. We met with Gov. Wolf. Then Steve Santarsiero was elected to the Senate and he got involved. 
“We’ve been working together to craft a bill that will ensure the best interests of children is the top priority in child custody decisions and will prevent tragedies like Kayden’s in the future.” 
Sherlock remembers the day: May 21, 2018. Judge Trauger, armed with so many substantiated reasons why Mancuso should not be given unsupervised visitation with Kayden, ignored Sherlock’s pleas and requests for supervised visitation. 
“What could I do after that?” says Sherlock, who appeared before Pennsylvania Family Court nine times in an effort to gain full custody of Kayden and limit her interactions with Mancuso. “I voiced my concerns with the judge over and over again. He didn’t hear me.” 
Eleven weeks later, Mancuso murdered his daughter. In 2020, the Sherlocks filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Trauger and 12 other agencies, including county and state bar associations, the state departments of human and child protective services, the Falls Township and Philadelphia Police departments, and the Pennsbury School District. 
“Somebody could have done something to save Kayden,” Sherlock says. “Somebody should have.”
Sherlock furrows her brow and continues pulling on the ends of her long chestnut-colored, shoulder-length hair. She repeatedly pinches her index finger and thumb to pluck near-microscopic bits of lint from her black pullover sweater. She fidgets in her seat.
She confesses the trauma of Kayden’s death continues. Therapy and medications have helped. But the nightmares continue. She has visions that each of her other children will suffer a tragic fate. Her trauma never takes a day off. 
“I fear that someday one of them will fall asleep with a blanket on their face or drown in a swimming pool,” Sherlock says, her face awash in pain. “Maybe that way or some other way. These are the thoughts I have. I want them to go away.”
The happy Sherlock emerges. A smile creases her face as she recalls how much Kayden loved going to Wildwood Crest at the Jersey shore. Playing on the beach, riding the roller coaster.
“She so looked forward to going there every summer for vacation,” Sherlock says. “Now, I just can’t go back there or anywhere at the shore. My therapist told me there are too many triggers there. The sights, the smells, Instead, on her angel anniversary, on Aug. 6, we go to the Outer Banks (in North Carolina) for two weeks. It’s too painful to go to Wildwood.”
Sherlock mentions having been interviewed by a news media outlet from the United Kingdom about Kayden and her advocacy. She kneels before a nearby cabinet, opens a drawer, and begins sifting through files of papers in search of the story. Above her, a chandelier with a candelabra bulb base flickers.
“I know it’s here,” she says, her voice filled with frustration. “It’s here. I’ll find it. I’ll find it. I will find it.” 
When one needs to find something as desperately as Sherlock needs to find every avenue to have Kayden’s Law to become law, to find every ounce of determination and energy, the search never ends.
You keep looking, keep sifting, keep the faith. You somehow set aside the pain and longing for a daughter taken in the most horrendous way more than 1,200 days ago and keep going. Somewhere in the recesses of her being, trapped beneath an unimaginable weight of pain and admitted moments of self-doubt, Kathryn Sherlock remains undeterred. For her daughter and at-risk children like her. 
Sherlock says she will keep looking for ways to pass Kayden’s Law, to ensure those other children for whom current child protection laws may be lacking are provided one vital thing: Adequate protection. 
“If someone has ever asked you for help, don’t ever turn them away,” Sherlock implored the gathering at Kayden’s funeral Mass. “In ‘Fight Song,’ (a 2015 anthemic hit by Rachel Platten, who has Tweeted and posted a video supporting Kayden), which Kayden knew verbatim, there’s a verse: I might only have one match, but I can make an explosion. 
“I know my baby girl may have only been one match,” Sherlock said, “but she’s caused an explosion.” 
Years from now, Kennedy Kay and big brother Kayce, both born after the tragedy that took their big sister, will hear stories about Kayden. The feisty girl they would have counted on to sing to them, dance with them, and hug them just because.
But they will also hear stories of how their mother became a champion for bolstering child protection laws. Stories about how she found the right support system, the devoted child advocates to initiate change. Stories about how their mother found the strength she thought she never had. Stories about how at-risk children in Pennsylvania and throughout America are better protected because Kathryn Sherlock found that most important something:
Her voice.
Columnist Phil Gianficaro can be reached at 215-345-3078, [email protected], and @philgianficaro on Twitter. 
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