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Gov. Wolf asks board to review Bucks judge in Kayden Mancuso custody battle

Bucks County Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey G. Trauger had granted the girl's mother primary custody of her daughter, Kayden Mancuso, but allowed the girl's father, Jeffrey Mancuso, unsupervised visits. In early August, Mancuso, fatally beat his daughter, 7, in his Manayunk home, then killed himself.

Kayden Mancuso at her mother Kathryn's wedding to Brian Sherlock in 2016.
Kayden Mancuso at her mother Kathryn's wedding to Brian Sherlock in 2016.Read moreCourtesy of Matthew Moffett

Gov. Wolf has asked the state's Judicial Conduct Board to review decisions by the Bucks County judge who let the father of Kayden Mancuso have unsupervised visits with the 7-year-old girl in the weeks before he fatally beat her and killed himself.

A spokesperson for Wolf confirmed Tuesday that the girl's family asked for his help in the wake of the murder-suicide in Manayunk this month.

"Gov. Wolf empathizes with the family regarding their tragic loss," spokesperson J.J. Abbott said in an email.

Relatives of the girl have lashed out at Judge Jeffrey G. Trauger for letting Jeffrey Mancuso continue unsupervised weekend visits with Kayden despite his threats to other relatives and their warnings to the judge about his violent tendencies. The girl's mother, Kathryn Sherlock, had primary custody.

In the days after Kayden's death, a family friend started a petition seeking Trauger's removal from the bench, contending that "he allowed a historically violent man to have unmonitored visits even after the child expressed fear." As of Tuesday afternoon, the petition had more than 37,000 signatures.

Sherlock had obtained a protection-from-abuse order against Mancuso; she has said he repeatedly threatened, abused, and harassed her. Mancuso's sister, Allyson, said she was also concerned about her brother's violent nature, and that he struggled with alcohol abuse and frequently got into fights.

Trauger has not responded to the family's criticisms. Stephen Heckman, the Bucks County court administrator, has said Trauger can't comment on individual cases.

During an unsupervised visit during the weekend of Aug. 4, Mancuso fatally beat his daughter with a 35-pound dumbbell in his living room. He then hanged himself in an upstairs room. The girl's body was found by her stepfather and her maternal grandfather on the morning of Aug. 6. Her death prompted an outpouring of grief and support around her Lower Bucks community; Kayden was to enter second grade this year at Edgewood Elementary School.

Trauger's last decision in the custody case, on May 21, noted that Kayden had personally witnessed her father's violent behavior when he was frustrated or angry. It also recounted Mancuso's aggravated-assault conviction for biting off part of a man's ear at a South Philadelphia bar on New Year's Day 2012, his abusive interaction with Kayden's kindergarten teacher and her principal at her Lower Makefield Township school, and a psychiatrist's conclusion that he suffered from major depression.

Trauger also noted that Kayden's mother told a custody evaluator that Mancuso, a 41-year-old consultant, had been "violent to her when they were together." Kayden's parents never married; she lived with her mother, stepfather and half-brothers in Langhorne.

The judge also wrote in his ruling that while Kayden was aware of the conflicts and turmoil between her mother and father, Mancuso loved Kayden and had not physically abused her.

His last ruling reaffirmed a prior ruling giving Sherlock primary custody of the girl but also restricted Mancuso's time with his daughter. Instead of getting Kayden from Thursday afternoon to Monday mornings every other week, Mancuso was limited to alternate weekends between 10 a.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday.

"However," Trauger wrote, "the court cautions father to be aware at all times of the potential risks that his behavior may have on child's future emotional and psychological well-being and her long-term relationship with father and others as she matures."

The Judicial Conduct Board investigates complaints against state judges and can bring cases against those who are accused of unethical actions.

Robert Graci, the board's chief counsel, declined Tuesday to acknowledge if a complaint had been filed. He said matters filed with the board are not public record and the board's proceedings are confidential.

In general, he said, every complaint is reviewed, but most are dismissed because they lack merit. The board could seek to review a judge's decisions, obtain hearing transcripts, or interview witnesses, he said.

Samuel Stretton, a Philadelphia-area lawyer who has represented judges in disciplinary cases, said he did not think the family's public complaints — that Trauger gave Mancuso unsupervised access despite being told of his past acts or threats of violence — would have merit before the board.

"Assuming he [Trauger] evaluated all the evidence and made a decision, that's not a basis for judicial discipline," said Stretton. "Judicial discipline would be if he didn't take the time to review the record, or didn't listen to evidence, or acted badly on the bench — cutting off people, yelling," or if a judge didn't have proper decorum or made a crude comment.

"You don't get judicial discipline just because a judge makes a decision that turns out to be wrong, as long as it was made fairly, honestly and based on the record," Stretton said. "Otherwise, if that was the case, it would be the end of an independent judiciary. Every judge would be looking over his shoulder."

Stacey Witalec, a spokesperson for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said family law and custody cases are among "the most difficult" for judges. She noted that Pennsylvania enacted sweeping changes to its custody laws in 2010 in an effort to further protect children.

"Sadly, however, no legislation, medical or psychological testing can prevent a senseless act of violence," Witalec said in an email. "The tragic loss of a child leaves everyone involved looking for answers."

In an Aug. 10 email to county Bar Association members, reported by the Bucks County Courier Times, association president Jessica Pritchard wrote: "The murder of a child is a tragic event that can never be understood. It is even more difficult to understand when that murder is committed by a parent. While I sincerely sympathize with and understand the emotions surrounding this horrible crime, the vitriol towards our judiciary and Judge Trauger is unwarranted."

A message left Tuesday for Pritchard was not returned.