Kathryn Sherlock and her family have been living a real-life nightmare since the murder of her 7-year-old daughter, Kayden, last August. Now, the trauma nurse is fighting back against the system that failed her family and doing everything in her power to spare other children the same fate.
This is Kathryn’s account, in her own words.
By Jess Downey
Kayden Mancuso rarely had nightmares. The 7-year-old was a high-spirited little girl, passionately devoted to unicorns, mermaids, and fancy shoes, and she excelled at just about every sport she tried. But last August, sometime around 1 a.m., she ran into the bedroom where her mom, little brother, Kyler, and stepdad, Brian, all slept. She was crying and whimpering, terrified that the monsters were coming for her.
Her mom, Kathryn Sherlock, tried to soothe her daughter. “I said, ‘K, Mommy can protect you. You’re ok, you’re safe. Nobody’s here, and no one’s going to hurt you.’ I held her hand, and we fell asleep,” Kathryn recalls, wincing a little at the memory. “Then, at 6 o’clock, I had to get up for work. I moved her hair out of her face, and I kissed her on the cheek. And for some reason, in my head I said, This better not be the last time I see this child.”
But it was the last time.
Less than 48 hours later, Kayden was fatally beaten by her father, Jeffrey Mancuso, 41, who then took his own life.
And no matter how many times Kathryn returns to the familiar etchings and grooves of the agonizing memories—the chain of events that led to the ultimate tragedy—the outcome is always the same. Again and again, she is sucked in by regret over the decision to bring Mancuso into Kayden’s life in the first place when she was still a baby. She goes over and over every violent outburst, every threat, and every menacing look Mancuso delivered over the years. She recalls each frustrating meeting with her attorney and every one of the nine fruitless visits to Pennsylvania Family Court to try to gain full custody of Kayden. She revisits her frantic call to the 5th District Philadelphia Police Department on the night of Kayden’s murder, the 911 call, and the midnight visit to Mancuso’s house that were all futile in the end. She sees the faces of the judges and lawyers and hears the voices of the officers who repeatedly ignored her pleas for help as she grew more certain with each frightening incident that Jeffrey Mancuso was a dangerous man.
But every recollection and retelling of the harrowing ordeal ends the same way—with her husband, Brian, finding Kayden’s body by the door in the living room of Mancuso’s Manayunk house at 10:55 a.m., her sneakers on, a bag over her head, and a vengeful note left behind.
Just over a year later, around the time that Kayden would have joined her friends to start third grade at Edgewood Elementary School in Yardley, Pa., Kathryn is back to working as an ER nurse at the Bristol-Myers Squibb Trauma Center at Capital Health, but just about everything else in her life is rearranged in an almost-unrecognizable configuration.
As she and her husband and their two young sons, Kyler and Blake, try to move forward without Kayden in their new home, Kathryn is on a mission. Following a visit from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf shortly after Kayden’s murder, Kathryn began absorbing as much about the state and federal custody laws as she could (she even took the LSATs last spring). Organizing alongside other advocates, she is working furiously to focus the nonprofit she created in Kayden’s name to introduce legislation that will protect children from her daughter’s fate and spare other families from the horrors the Sherlocks endured and continue to confront each day.
It comes down to the fact that there was something seriously wrong, and no one would listen to me. You have to be able to tell the difference from someone doing this out of spite and someone trying to protect their children from harm. They need to take the child’s safety into consideration over the rights of the parent.
As of August 6, 2018, everything I knew in my life was completely gone. That’s why I went back to work. I just needed something to remind me of who I was.
History of Violence
Kathryn and her two sisters, Heather and Meghan, grew up in Yardley, Pa., raised by loving parents in a traditional Catholic household. Kathryn knew since she was about 5 that she wanted to be a nurse. She graduated from LaSalle Nursing School in 2006 and started working as a telemetry nurse. In the summers, Kathryn spent as much time at the Jersey Shore as possible, and in 2009 she met Jeff Mancuso through mutual friends. They saw each other casually, and in 2010, at 29 years old, she became pregnant with Kayden.
While she and Mancuso weren’t ever in a romantic, committed relationship, she wanted Kayden to know her father. “My family was always number one, so I thought I had to give her a chance to have a dad in her life, which turned out to be a huge mistake,” Kathryn says. “My biggest regret is not just packing up all of my stuff and leaving immediately. Maybe he would’ve left us alone.”
Instead, Mancuso became a constant source of anxiety and pain for Kathryn. In addition to his controlling and unpredictable behavior, which sometimes turned violent and threatening, he also had run-ins with the law. On New Year’s Day of 2012, Mancuso bit part of a man’s ear off at a bar in South Philadelphia. He told a court-appointed psychologist, “I beat him up, he put me in a headlock, and I bit down on his ear and took off the top part of his ear.” He was found guilty of aggravated assault, and he was ordered to serve 14 months of house arrest.
Meanwhile, Kathryn moved on with her life away from Mancuso. In 2013, she took a nurse position at the neurosurgical ICU at the Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton, and she started dating Brian Sherlock, who she later married in 2016. She and Brian eventually had two sons of their own—Kyler and Blake—and they did their best to find normalcy, despite Mancuso’s erratic and sometimes frightening outbursts. “I never knew how he was going to react. One minute, he’d be laughing and joking around with everybody on the sidelines at Kayden’s soccer game, and then something would set him off. It was very scary,” Kathryn says.
“For example, we were at her soccer game one time and someone started honking at him. He got out, with Kayden in the car, and tried to fight the guy. It was all very scary.”
Fight for Kayden
As the years went on, Mancuso’s behavior became more belligerent, violent, and threatening. Around Thanksgiving 2017, she filed a protection from abuse (PFA) application “after he threatened to kill me and everybody.” Over the years, he was abusive with Kathryn, with total strangers, and even his own mother. He also had multiple exchanges with Kayden’s teacher and principal at Edgewood Elementary that “were rude, belittling, abusive, and condescending.” As a result, the Pennsbury School District sent Mancuso a certified letter in early 2017 advising him “to cease and desist all communications with the school,” banning him from being at the school except to pick up Kayden outside the building.
Ultimately, Kathryn went to Pennsylvania Family Court nine times in an effort to gain full custody of Kayden and limit her interactions with Mancuso. “Every time I ever talked to this man, he would completely harass me. If you said no to him, wrath was upon you,” she says. “The voicemails, text messages, and the emails I had to show in court were just so awful.”
In February 2018, Bucks County Judge Jeffrey G. Trauger ordered a psychological evaluation of both parents by an independent psychologist. The evaluation reported that Kathryn was suffering from anxiety and diagnosed Mancuso with “major depressive disorder, moderate anxiety disorder, and identified narcissistic and antisocial personality traits.” The psychologist also found that Mancuso was “experiencing disordered sleep, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, and suicidal ideation.”
Despite that diagnosis and his history of violence and threatening behavior, as well as an arrest in October 2017 for suspicion of driving under the influence, the court battle ended in May 2018 with Judge Trauger reducing Mancuso’s visitation time but still allowing unsupervised visits every other weekend.
“After the ruling, my lawyer asked if I was ok with it. I said, ‘No, but what else can we possibly do?’”
Cries for Help
On his visitation weekends, Mancuso was supposed to have Kayden back to the Sherlocks by 6 p.m. on Sunday. But on Sunday, August 5, 2018, 6 o’clock came and went. So did 7. And then 8. And by 9 o’clock, Kathryn was pacing back and forth outside her house, willing herself to stay calm. At 9:16 p.m., Kathryn finally called the 5th District Philadelphia Police Department, which covers Manayunk, where Mancuso lived. “I told them, ‘My daughter should’ve been home by 6 o’clock per court order but she’s not here, so I need someone to go check on her.”
The police officer said his hands were tied and told her to call the Langhorne Police Department instead, Kathryn says. “He then told me I needed to take it up with the courts. He asked me if there was some reason I thought Kayden was in danger, and I said there were a million reasons,” she says. “I started listing all these things, and he goes, ‘Have a good night, ma’am,’ and he hung up on me.”
Eventually, Kathryn and Brian drove down to Mancuso’s house where they discovered the lights on and the dog was left outside. At that point, Kathryn called 911, and about 90 minutes later a police officer came to Mancuso’s home and walked around the property. He told the Sherlocks there was nothing else he could do without a warrant. “So, we went home, and my dad called the Falls Township Police Department at 1 a.m. and said, ‘My granddaughter’s missing’ and explained the whole thing again. The officer said, ‘Sir, it’s late. She’s with her dad, she’s fine, you need to take it up with the courts in the morning. There’s nothing we can do.’ No Amber Alert was issued, no filed missing child report.”
The next morning, Brian and Kathryn’s father went back to Mancuso’s house, where the dog was still outside, and they went in through the back door.
That’s when Brian found Kayden’s brutally beaten body, right by the front door. “He called the police around 10:55, and they pronounced her dead at 11:02,” Kathryn says. “I was with my mom, sitting with the baby on the couch. My sister, Heather, came in and she’s like, Kath. I took one look at her, and I just knew. I just started screaming. I don’t remember much after that.”
The days and weeks after Kayden’s murder were a blur of blinding grief and disbelief. A shattered family tried to pick up the pieces. A bereft community held a vigil to honor Kayden. Gov. Wolf and his staff requested a meeting with Kathryn to discuss what went wrong. Supporters protested, calling for change in the family court. ABC News produced and aired a Nightline segment on Kayden and the Sherlocks.
While there was an outpouring of support, the backlash on the other side was relentless and cutting. Social media posts pointed fingers at Kathryn and her family and comments on the Nightline episode ridiculed her for not appearing remorseful enough because the episode didn’t air the parts of the taping in which Kathryn and Brian were openly crying. But many people did want to help and offered financial support and donations in Kayden’s honor. Ultimately, Kathryn and her family started a nonprofit called Kayden’s Korner (kaydenskorner.com), which was initially intended to be mainly a memorial fund.
In an effort to reclaim some piece of herself, Kathryn also returned to work. Her Capital Health coworkers were an unwavering source of support. Even at the funeral, she remembers feeling momentarily buoyed when she looked up and saw “a wave of blue, like every nurse I had ever worked with was there in their scrubs to show support.” But her therapist and even her mother cautioned her against going back to work too soon. “I felt I had no choice—I had to feel like a part of something again,” Kathryn says. “As of August 6, 2018, everything I knew in my life was completely gone. I’ve been a nurse for so long, and I needed a part of me to feel real.”
And in the ensuing months, there was something else that made Kathryn feel real—connecting with other moms and families who had experienced similar turmoil and tragedies. She found some on a private Facebook page for parents whose children were murdered. In other cases, they reached out to her. As she learned about these other cases and began to understand that parental rights supersede the safety of the child in many states, she knew she had to do something.
In addition to learning everything she could about parental rights and child protection laws, she decided to turn Kayden’s Korner into a vehicle to help support and introduce legislation that protected children and create awareness. She started to say yes when agencies and organizations asked her to tell her story publicly. Her sister, Heather, organized a golf outing last summer, which raised money for Kayden’s Korner with appearances from local celebrities like Eagles legend Vince Papale and John LeClair from the Flyers. Kathryn is also meeting with legislators and working with Child USA Ambassador Danielle Pollack to write legislation, known as Kayden’s Law, which she hopes to help pass in Pennsylvania.
Her sister, filmmaker Meghan Giglio, is producing a documentary called What About Us, which will give the Sherlocks another opportunity to share Kayden’s story and create awareness about the dearth of child safety laws. “We will tell our story as well as a woman whose kids were killed in front of her. We want to share the warning signs and the red flags about domestic violence. It happens so much more than people are willing to talk about.”
Kathryn isn’t exactly sure what she’ll do next now that she’s taken the LSATs, but she knows she wants to help prevent other tragedies from taking other children. “I have women coming to me, saying they need financial help or they’re going to be evicted or they need money for a lawyer to help them protect their children, for example. That’s ideally what the money from Kayden’s Korner will be for when we get bigger.”
While she wants to stop the 707th child from being killed in the midst of a custody dispute, her heart aches knowing that Kayden’s death was preventable, if someone had heard and acted on her pleas for help. “It comes down to the fact that there was something seriously wrong, and no one would listen to me. You have to be able to tell the difference from someone doing this out of spite and someone trying to protect their children from harm,” Kathryn says. “They need to take the child’s safety into consideration over the rights of the parent.”
What's in Kayden's Law?
Child advocacy, mandated mental evaluation, and state psychological testing in family court. Court-appointed lawyer or “skilled” representative would act as a child advocate in custody proceedings.
Increased education for Domestic Relations Office and judges on mental illness. Proven violent offenders be mandated to supervised visitation while receiving counseling.
Domestic relations will provide follow up for proof of counseling, or there would be a loss of privileges.
Emergency Child Endangerment Act. The creation of a mechanism that allow for family to seek immediate protection in an abuse case. At present, a request to modify a custody order is filed and can take 6 to 8 weeks before the case is added to the court schedule.
Constitutional change to judge selection process. Proposes judges must have a yet-to-be-determined number of years experience in the field of law they preside over.
Reduction of judge term. Increase frequency of judicial retention elections from 10 to 5 years.
Judge oversight. Increase accountability for rulings.