(ABC NEWS)- To most of her family and friends, Kayden Mancuso was a typical 7-year-old. She was a talented athlete and a good student who loved dancing and singing around the house and even competed in local pageants.
“Everyone thinks their kid’s the most amazing person on the planet. But this little girl was, was different. She was special,” Kayden’s mom Kathy Sherlock told ABC News. “Everyone wanted to be her best friend.”
But on August 6, Kayden’s vibrant life was cut short in a flash.
Kayden’s biological father Jeffrey Mancuso killed the young girl inside his Philadelphia home before taking his own life following a years’ long, bitter custody battle with her mother.
“I still don’t feel like it’s real,” Sherlock said. “I still feel like I’m going to wake up from this awful nightmare and I just … but I know that I’m not.”
One month after their daughter’s death, Kathy Sherlock and Kayden’s stepfather, Brian Sherlock, are opening up to “Nightline” in their first television interview about their unimaginable loss. They believe this tragedy could have been avoided if it weren’t for the family court system that they say failed them.
They hope sharing their story will shed light on mental health and family custody issues.
Kathy Sherlock said she thinks her daughter’s death was “absolutely” preventable. “Every single thing that could’ve stopped it at some point, it just didn’t,” she said.
“A hundred percent,” her husband Brian added.
With Kayden, who served as the flower girl at the Sherlocks’ recent wedding, and her two younger half-brothers, Kathy and Brian thought their lives couldn’t get any better.
“But there was someone else in the picture – Kayden’s biological father Jeffrey Mancuso. Kathy Sherlock had met him one summer on the Jersey Shore and found him “charming” at first.
“He was very, he was funny. He was charming, and not charming, but he had a personality,” she said.
Kathy Sherlock calls their relationship a “fling.” They never got married, but Kathy said they moved in together when she found out she was pregnant with Kayden.
“I thought that that’s what I had to do. Not to be in a relationship with him, but to try for Kayden to give her two parents,” Kathy Sherlock said. “It wasn’t a romantic relationship. We slept in separate rooms.”
Despite the chill between Kayden’s biological parents, Mancuso’s sister Allyson Mancuso said their father-daughter bond was very strong.
“She [Kayden] would always say how she loved him,” Allyson Mancuso said. “My brother is 5’6″, she would say things like, ‘My daddy’s so tall.’ She just thought he was so tall and so strong.”
According to Allyson Mancuso, Kayden was one of the only bright spots in her brother’s life, which she said had been troubled since childhood, issues made worse, she said, by excessive drinking, self-medicating and violent outbursts.
“He’s punching teachers, getting hit in the head with a pool stick. He had 17 staples in his head, or something like that,” she said. “I always said to my mom, ‘Something’s not right.’ … I felt he was never the same after that. It’s just the emotion part was not there as it was when he was a kid.”
“I think that between the drinking, and the hits in the head, that he suffered from some brain damage, which caused him to progressively get mentally ill,” Allyson continued. “He was okay and tolerable until Kayden.”
Sherlock soon discovered Jeffrey Mancuso’s violent streak, and a criminal record that included multiple assault charges across several states. She said Mancuso would call her “the worst names possible every day,” and then the verbal abuse turned physical.
“He had actually strangled me,” she said. “I remember the only time I’ve ever felt like I was going to die was in the clutches of his arms … And I just prayed,” she said. “I remember being like, ‘I’m going to stop breathing soon.'”
Sherlock said she left Mancuso “multiple times,” and went and stayed with her parents, but didn’t permanently leave for a while.
“The reason that I didn’t actually physically leave is because… who was going watch my child when I was at work. His mom was there,” she explained.
Jeffrey Mancuso’s mother not only helped to keep an eye on Kayden, but also on her son. But five years ago, Jeffery was charged with assault for biting off a man’s ear during a bar fight and for Sherlock, that was the final straw that made her leave for good.
“I left, like literally packed up my house in a U-Haul on a Monday, said ‘we’re getting the hell out of here,'” she said.
Despite fearing for her own safety by then, Sherlock never imagined Mancuso would physically harm their daughter, so she established an informal, every other weekend, custody schedule with him and he gave her money for child support.
“He was loving towards her [Kayden],” Sherlock recalled. “That’s probably the only good thing he had in her… She loved him. She never talked bad about him.”
As Jeffrey Mancuso’s life seemed to be unraveling, Kathy moved on and fell in love with Brian Sherlock, who fell hard, not only for Kathy, but her little girl as well.