A few years ago, I wrote a column about Harambe, the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo who was euthanized after a child fell into his enclosure. I thought the mother was negligent in failing to supervise her toddler, who tumbled down an embankment and directly into harm’s way.
That got me the front page, a guest appearance on CNN, and some serious blowback from the kind of people who think it’s mean to blame mothers when their kids fall into the arms of gorillas. I lost some friends, and I learned the lesson that when you criticize a parent, you set yourself up for some righteous indignation of the “how dare you judge me, childless harridan!” type.
Still, I’ve kept up the campaign against negligent parents. So far it’s been mommies who bear the brunt of my attacks, including the woman who didn’t bother to stop doing drugs long enough to make sure her baby wasn’t ingesting them through her breast milk.
Then there was the mother who, just this past week, left her baby in a car, ignition and air conditioning on, allegedly intending to get a tattoo and a piercing.
While these are all varying levels of culpability — with the mom in the Harambe tragedy being at the bottom of the Mommy Dearest pyramid and addicted mom at the top — there is a common narrative thread: Adults behaving like narcissistic and/or reckless idiots while their children pay the price for their mediocrity. And every time I write or otherwise opine about these outrageous acts of abuse and negligence, someone comes back at me with a finger pointed directly in my childless face and preaches about empathy.
I have a suspicion that this is because we are loathe to criticize mothers, especially in a society where they are becoming increasingly rare. Statistics show that the days of the large families like mine — I had five siblings — are over. More importantly, we have this sense that women are often unfairly burdened with the lion’s share of the blame when something goes wrong. That could be the case, although I don’t really think it matters to a child abused by his or her parent.
This brings me to the story that broke my heart this week, making the other stories of gorillas and breast milk and tattoos take a back seat to the reality that there is evil in the world.
Kayden Mancuso was murdered by her father this past weekend, her tiny skull crushed under his beatings. Her father then killed himself. What happened to Kayden was evil, and the man who did it to her was a monster whose depths of depravity and danger were known to a judge and a police department months before he killed his little girl.
Jeff Mancuso was known to his family, to his ex-wife, to his community, to his daughter and more importantly, to the legal system in Bucks County as a violent man. He had bitten off someone’s ear, was aggressive with Kayden’s teachers, had threatened his ex-wife with physical harm and had verbally and physically bullied people in the presence of his little girl. He shouldn’t have been within 10 feet of that child.
And still, his rights were more important than this 7-year-old girl who loved baseball and Disney princesses and dancing.
The guiding principle in custody disputes is the “best interests of the child,” but in practice, that’s rarely the case. The court system consistently protects the rights of biological parents, even when those parents are so obviously unfit.
I’ve known people who were abused as children, including my own father, and their stories were almost Dickensian. They managed to survive, but society didn’t help them. They were forced to climb out of the pit by themselves.
In the case of Kayden Mancuso, people in a position of power saw that she was hovering at the edge of that pit, and instead of pulling her back, they let her tumble in. They did it because her father had rights, just as a drug-addicted mother had rights, just as a woman who wanted a tattoo had rights.
And in exchange for honoring those rights, one more tiny coffin.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.