Friday, September 14, 2018

Judge delays sentencing in Bristol Township day care death

Posted: Sept. 12, 2018

Christopher and Christine Sawicki enter the courtroom
Calling the court case before him complex, significant and tragic, a Bucks County judge delayed sentencing for a Bristol Township woman who operated an illegal home day care where a 19-month-old girl died last year after she was strapped in a car seat for a nap and left unsupervised for at least an hour, a case that shined a spotlight on the potential risks of underground child care providers.
“This is a difficult decision for any well-meaning judge,” Judge Brian McGuffin told a courtroom packed with supporters of defendant Jaimee Lee Gorman, 36, as well as the parents of Alivia Sawicki, the girl who died while in Gorman’s care on June 16, 2017. “I don’t know what I am going to do. I will try my best to be wise and just and fair.”
McGuffin decided to postpone sentencing 60 days for Gorman, who pleaded guilty Monday to endangering the welfare of children, a first-degree misdemeanor, so he can have time to digest the facts of the case and review documents including victim impact statements. The judge said that he was not made aware of the “significance” of the case until 30 minutes before he took the bench, and he wanted to take his time deliberating.
“It is a sad, sad, tragic event that occurred,” he said, adding he had empathy for both families. “It merits strong consideration.”
Gorman was operating an unlicensed child care business the day Alivia Sawicki suffocated and died in a car seat after she was left alone for an afternoon nap in a second-floor bedroom of the home Gorman rented. A state-mandated review of the death found it appeared the chest buckle on the car seat pressed into Alivia’s neck when the child tried to get out of the seat. A 14-year-old relative of Gorman’s found the girl when she went to wake her.
The Bucks County District Attorney’s Office initially declined to press criminal charges against Gorman.
The office reopened the case after this news organization investigated the death and learned that at least four of the nine children Gorman was watching — including the Sawicki siblings — were not her family, suggesting that she was operating an illegal, unlicensed child care business. State licensing is required for child care providers regularly supervising four or more children who are not their family members.
Alivia Sawicki (L) Jaimee Lee Gorman (R)
Gorman, a single mom of three, was initially charged in March with operating an unlicensed facility, a felony offense when a death occurs. The charge was later reduced to endangering the welfare of children to bar Gorman from providing child care services in the future. She faces a potential maximum of five years in state prison and up to $10,000 in fines and remains free on unsecured bail.
With her attorney beside her, a visibly upset Gorman told the judge that she and Alivia’s mom had a conversation about how the toddler liked to be rocked to sleep in the carrier with her blanket and a pacifier.
“She would just cry in the crib,” Gorman said.
But when the judge asked her, Christine Sawicki — wearing a purple T-shirt with “Alivia’s Fight” across the chest — contended her daughter only napped in car seats when she was traveling in a vehicle.
“We never physically put her in her car seat for a nap,” she added. “We never left her unattended in a car seat.”
Sawicki added that during the roughly six months that Gorman — a high school acquaintance she reconnected with on social media — watched their two children, she and her husband, Christopher, didn’t know Alivia was left in a car seat for naps. She told McGuffin they only suspected what was happening — and told Gorman to stop — after they noticed the car seat would be wet with urine in the afternoons when the kids were picked up, she said. The couple also warned Gorman to watch Alivia when she was in the car seat because she loved to rock in it, she added.
Christine Sawicki shows her tattoo of Alivia
In the hallway before the hearing, Christine Sawicki said she was fine with the judge taking more time to decide a sentence.
“I just want people to know it’s not OK to kill people,” she said.
Christine Sawicki’s mother, Christina Witman, described the loss of Alivia as a black hole of sadness. Roughly nine months after Alivia died, Christine gave birth to a son named Asher. Everyone tells the family he bears a strong resemblance to the big sister he’ll never know, she added.
Life has been especially tough for her older brother, Austin, now 5, Witman said. He talks nonstop about Alivia.
She recalled what Austin said to his baby brother one day when Asher was about a month old and acting fussy.
“He said, ‘Do you miss Alivia, too?’” Witman said, tears filling in her eyes. “That just broke my heart. It broke my heart.”

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Pennsylvania lawmakers to hear testimony on protecting kids in disputed custody cases

Posted Sept. 14, 2018

Three years ago, state Rep. Tina Davis introduced a bill to make protecting children the first priority in custody cases where there are allegations of sexual abuse or violence, long before anyone heard of the name Kayden Mancuso.
Kayden Mancuso
On Monday, the Bristol Township Democrat, who represents the 141st district, will host a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing in Middletown to examine how child custody cases are addressed in the state and how courts can better address the needs of families. Davis plans to use hearing and expert testimony to update her 2015 bill, which remains in the House Judiciary Committee.
Her proposed legislation would require a professional who provides advice, recommendations or evaluations to the court in custody proceedings to have expertise in domestic violence-related issues and, where appropriate, child sexual abuse. It also would require judges and attorneys be trained to appropriately respond to allegations of domestic violence in custody cases.
The Davis bill also would mandate an evidentiary hearing to “thoroughly vet” allegations of abuse and domestic violence as part of custody proceedings, and it would require only supervised visitation for parents found to have committed abuse until the person can prove they are no longer a risk to the child.
Also expected to be discussed at the hearing is another bill before the House Judiciary Committee that would suspend visitation rights for an abusive parent in domestic violence cases or allow only professionally supervised visitation. The bill, introduced by Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, also would encourage the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts to develop and implement standards to improve the ability of the court to recognize and respond to the impact of abuse and domestic violence on children.
The hearing comes roughly one month after the high-profile murder of 7-year-old Kayden Mancuso, who was killed Aug. 6 during a scheduled overnight visit with her father, Jeffrey Mancuso, 42, of Philadelphia, who then killed himself. The murder-suicide came three months after a Bucks County judge awarded Mancuso unsupervised visits, despite a history of violent and erratic behavior, including alleged assaults on Kayden’s mother, Kathryn Sherlock, and Mancuso’s mother.
Following her murder, Kayden’s family has campaigned on social and traditional media to remove Judge Jeffrey Trauger from the bench for failing to follow a court-ordered evaluation that recommended Mancuso have unsupervised visits with Kayden “contingent” on him entering mental health treatment. In his May custody order, Trauger strongly urged Mancuso to get that treatment, but did not mandate it.
Kathryn Sherlock is among the panelists scheduled to testify Monday. She met earlier this month with Gov. Tom Wolf and his senior staff to discuss family court reforms the family is pushing to enact as part of what they have proposed as “Kayden’s Law.” Among the proposed ideas are mandatory court-appointed advocates for children in custody proceedings and requiring judges incorporate recommendations from expert testimony and court evaluations into final orders.
Pennsylvania most recently underwent dramatic changes in its child custody laws in 2010, with new rules designed to hold Common Pleas Court judges more accountable for the reasoning behind custody awards and assuring the best interests of the child are in the forefront. Changes included requiring the court to address 16 custody factors and explain decisions in orders creating a case history for a future judge. At least five of those 16 factors address violence and potential harm to a child.
But Davis said that what she hears are parent complaints that courts do not take their allegations seriously, even when they are shown proof, or when supported by expert testimony.
“I hear that sometimes the judges don’t listen to what the advocates say,” Davis said.
National research shows that state family courts have struggled to evaluate reports of child abuse and domestic violence, including the appropriate burdens of proof, but admissibility standards often dip below those required in the criminal and civil court systems, according to CHILD USA, a Philadelphia-based child welfare organization.
Pennsylvania judges can tie visitation to undergoing mandatory psychological evaluations and behavioral or mental health treatment as part of custody orders, but without evidence that a child has been abused or threatened, a parent’s past violent or criminal behavior doesn’t automatically prevent contact with children, according to family law attorneys.
Similar patterns are found in other family courts. U.S. Department of Justice statistics suggest that 75 percent of the time, family courts award alleged domestic violence abusers unsupervised access to children. Frequently, the most highly contested custody cases involve domestic violence allegations, according to domestic violence experts.
A 2004 Harvard University School of Public Health study in the American Journal, Public Health found that men who abuse female partners are also “highly likely” to abuse the children of these women “however, family courts are reported to often ignore risks posed by abusive men in awarding child custody and visitation.”
“Children’s continued exposure to abusive parents may place them at increased risk for a range of serious health concerns. Children of women who have been abused by a male partner are at very high risk of being abused by these same men with approximately half of all children of battered women abused by their mothers’ abusers,” according to the Harvard study.

Lower Makefield family takes first steps on ‘Kayden’s Law’

Posted: September 9, 2018

Children need an advocate to represent their interests in custody proceedings, and the judges overseeing those typically contentious court cases should be required to incorporate the recommendations of professionals in custody orders.
Kayden Mancuso and her father Jeffrey in 2016
Those were among the family court-related reforms that the Lower Makefield family of 7-year-old Kayden Mancuso, who was murdered by her father following an intense 18-month child custody fight, discussed in a private meeting Friday with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and his senior staff in Harrisburg, the administration confirmed.
The Wolf administration said in a statement that his staff would continue to work with the family, advocates and the legislature on the ideas presented.
“We have the deepest sympathy for Kayden’s mom, stepfather, grandfather, aunts and uncles, and we want to do all that we can to make sure no family suffers the same tragedy they have suffered,” Deputy Press Secretary Sara Goulet wrote.
Kayden was killed last month by her father, Jeffrey Mancuso, 42, of Philadelphia, less than three months after a Bucks County judge issued a custody order that allowed him twice monthly unsupervised visits with her. Her death has attracted international attention and focused new public scrutiny on the family court system and child custody cases.
Kayden’s mother, Kathryn Sherlock, her stepfather, Brian, and other family members have called for the removal of Bucks County Judge Jeffery Trauger for failing to follow a court evaluator’s recommendation that Mancuso be given unsupervised visits with Kayden “contingent” on him entering mental health treatment. Trauger, who was re-elected last year, was appointed to the bench in 2016 after a legal career that focused on real estate, banking, civil and commercial law.
A court-ordered psychological evaluation diagnosed Mancuso with major depressive disorder, moderate anxious distress, narcissistic and antisocial personality traits, according to a copy of the report obtained by this news organization. The report stated that Mancuso was receiving medication management from his primary care doctor, he was encouraged to seek a psychiatrist, and would benefit from psychotherapy and parenting education. He also had previous assault convictions and Sherlock obtained a three-year protection from abuse order against him in December.
At a May 1 custody hearing, Sherlock’s attorney urged Trauger to order Mancuso into mental health treatment and that the mental health professional be advised as the reason for the treatment, according to a copy of the court transcript obtained by this news organization. She also requested sole legal custody, which the court evaluator recommended against.
Instead, Trauger only recommended that Mancuso seek mental health treatment and he reduced his visitation privileges to overnight stays every other weekend, but did not require supervision in his May 24 second amended order. It was during one of those overnight visits last month that Mancuso killed Kayden before taking his own life.
Family spokeswoman Jennifer Sherlock, the girl’s aunt, confirmed the family emphasized four bullet points they want to see enacted with Wolf and his staff. They are reforms dubbed the centerpiece of what they have proposed as “Kayden’s Law.”

  • Mandate court-appointed attorneys or “skilled” representatives that would act as child advocates in custody proceedings.

  • Require judges hearing custody cases to incorporate recommendations from expert testimony and court evaluations into final orders.

  • Create an emergency mechanism to allow families to seek immediate protection in an abuse case, rather than wait six to eight weeks after a request to modify custody is filed until the case gets before a judge.

  • Require judges have experience in the field of law for the type of court where they will be seated.
The Wolf administration promised to take a deeper look into the family’s objectives and collect more information, Sherlock said. She added the family will start to meet with local state lawmakers to get the political backing necessary to create a bill.
Child advocates on Friday called the reform ideas that the family is proposing commendable, but expressed reservations that some could be easily enacted. Before proposing changes there needs to be an examination of what is in place now and what is, and isn’t, working and why, they said.
“Any steps we take shouldn’t be driven by this case,” said Cathleen Palm, founder and executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice in Berks County. “As dramatic and unsettling as Kayden’s death is, we have to be careful that we not have it be a singular case that drives policy reform that is not thoughtful.”
Without evidence that a child has been abused or threatened, a parent’s past violent or criminal behavior doesn’t automatically prevent contact with children, according to family law attorneys. Where concerns are raised a parent has serious behavior or mental health problems, judges have the power to tie visitation to mandatory evaluation and treatment in a custody order.
Pennsylvania most recently underwent dramatic changes in its child custody laws in 2010, with new rules designed to hold Common Pleas Court judges more accountable for the reasoning behind custody awards and assuring the best interests of the child are in the forefront. Changes included requiring the court to address 16 custody factors and explain decisions in orders creating a case history for a future judge.
At least five of those 16 factors address violence and potential harm to a child, according to Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia.
Cervone supports court-assigned legal advocates for children in custody cases to make sure their needs, experiences and wishes are conveyed to the court.
But he is among the minority, he said. Many in the legal profession believe adding a third party to an already contentious and emotionally charged court case can be problematic.
“These cases have two stories, and the notion that there is a clear truth to be told from the child’s perspective that is going to change the decision between the two parties puts the kid in an awkward and somehow too powerful position,” Cervone said. “If I threw my weight behind one party of the case, that matters a lot to the court and it’s unclear whether it should, though there are certainly cases where it should.”
Cervone added that a pathway for emergency custody hearings already exists, and that parents can file for an emergency hearing, though the responsiveness, and what is considered an emergency, could depend on the court. Parents can also file for a protection from abuse order on behalf of a child facing imminent danger of harm.
But Cervone pointed out with Kayden’s case, an emergency custody hearing might not have had the effect the family wanted. If a parent appeals a custody order, the decision is stayed, which means the previous order goes into effect. In the Kayden’s case, the previous order gave her father longer unsupervised visitation.
While “theoretically attractive,” choosing judges based on whether their legal experience matches the court where they’d preside would be hard to administer and could lead to difficulty filling vacancies, Cervone said.
Parent visitation, however, is an issue the child welfare system and legal system should look to start reform efforts, Palm added.
It is common for children to remain in homes or have unsupervised visitation with alleged abusers when child welfare investigations take place, she said. In hostile home environments where parents are incapable of getting along, their anger toward each other can sometimes spill over into their children, Palm added.
“Policy makers don’t understand how often children remain connected to or exposed to a person who may be a direct harm to them.”
While the courts are reluctant to infringe on parents having access to their children, when there are yellow flags it is better to put more restrictions in place, Palm said. But, she added, at the same time the courts and the behavioral health systems need resources in place so parents with behavior, mental or drug issues can get the help they need and continue a relationship with their children.
“You don’t want to penalize every parent who has ever been angry, every parent that has a substance abuse issue, every parent that has mental illness,” Palm said. “That is the challenge in so much of what we do. We talk a good game. We’re going to be in the best interest of the child ... but we don’t do that.”