MANHASSET, N.Y. — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the members of a blue-ribbon commission Friday that will look at the training of family court forensic evaluators who make crucial child custody decisions.
One of the members will be a Nassau County mother, Jacqueline Franchetti, whose 2-year-old daughter Kyra was fatally shot by the child’s dad, Franchetti’s ex-boyfriend, during a weekend visit in 2016.
The mom has been leading the push to require better training of family court forensic evaluators through her organization, called Kyra’s Champions.
She recently pointed out to PIX11 News that her daughter was among 19 children killed in New York State, in a 5-year period, as they were going through the family court system.
“It is mind boggling to me that in New York State we require more hours of training to flip a burger than to do a life or death child custody evaluation,” Franchetti told PIX11 News early Friday morning, shortly after the New York State Assembly had passed a bill calling for more training. “In New York City, forensic evaluators are only required to have six hours of training. In upstate New York, there are no training requirements.”
The Assembly vote came in the final hours of the legislative session. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz, still needs to pass the New York State Senate.
Franchetti hopes the bill will one day become Kyra’s Law, named for her late daughter.
Assemblyman Dinowitz had told PIX11 earlier this week the bill would require evaluators “be a psychologist, a social worker, or a psychiatrist.”
The governor had talked about forming the blue-ribbon commission on forensic evaluators earlier this year.
“Parents have reported experiences with forensic custody evaluators who have no comprehensive training about domestic violence, child abuse, and other issues that can be part of contested custody matters,” said Secretary to Gov. Cuomo Melissa DeRosa. “This can result in recommendations that place children at risk of harm, or even death.”
The story of little Kyra Franchetti, who grew up in Manhasset, is heartbreaking and horrific. On July 27th, 2016, firefighters in Fairfax County, Virginia who were battling flames at a stately home there made a horrifying discovery. They found the body of 2-yaer-old Kyra in one bedroom and her father, Roy Rumsey, in another.
“He shot her twice in the back, while she slept,” Franchetti said, “and then poured gasoline all over his home. And he killed himself in a murder/suicide.”
Rumsey, a defense contractor, had been battling Kyra’s mother in Nassau County Family Court on visitation issues over a 20-month period.
Jacqueline Franchetti, who runs a communications company, said she had left an abusive relationship with Rumsey when she was pregnant; she thought it was the right move to protect her baby.
“I was able to keep the visits initially in my home,” Franchetti said. “Then the judge allowed him to take her outside of my home.”
Franchetti told PIX11 News that red flags raised about Rumsey’s erratic behavior, which eyewitnesses backed up, failed to move forensic evaluators, the child’s family court lawyer, or the judge.
“Instead of the judge actually protecting me or Kyra, she actually yelled at me to quote/unquote ‘Grow up,'” Franchetti said.
When PIX11 News reached out to the Office of Court Administration, asking for a supervising judge or another official to address the child safety concerns, we were told no one was available. The OCA provided us with figures on New York City Family Court hearings relating to custody and visitation in 2018, 2019, and 2020.
In 2018 and 2019, more than 50,000 filings and dispositions flowed through family court. That number dropped sharply to just over 15,000 dispositions during the pandemic in 2020.
Jacqueline Franchetti believes there is more focus on one parent alienating a child from the other parent than there is on child safety.
“And once you get labeled as an ‘alienator’ in family court, alienation will actually trump child abuse. They will take up for the child abuser over the protective parent,” Franchetti said. “Nationwide, over half a million children today are terrified of the home they’re in, they’ve been court ordered to be with their abuser.”
Franchetti recalled when she learned that her 2-year-old daughter had been killed during the weekend visit with her father in 2016.
“I couldn’t breathe when Kyra died,” she said. “It hurt to breathe.”
Franchetti had reached out to PIX11 News after we covered the recent, pre-trial murder hearing of former New York City cop, Michael Valva, who’s charged with allowing his 8-year-old son, Thomas, to freeze to death in the family’s Suffolk County garage during a bitterly cold night.
Michael Valva had retained custody of his three young sons, even after their mother raised serious issues in Family Court — and even after East Moriches school administrators had repeatedly contacted a child abuse hotline over a two year period.
“The ongoing failures of New York Family Court is the epidemic that will outlast the current pandemic,” Franchetti said. “What happened to Tommy, what happened to my daughter Kyra, is happening to far too many children.”
Franchetti has been working with Dr. Peter Jaffe of Western University in Ontario, who has trained judges and forensic evaluators in 30 states, including New York. He is the director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children.
While Jaffe acknowledges that women sometimes commit murder/suicide during custody disputes, it is far more often men who take this violent route.
“I think what’s unique around child custody disputes is often fathers will threaten to harm children, or harm children, as an act of revenge, retaliation against the mother for leaving the relationship,” Jaffe said. “If a mother’s life is in danger, the children’s lives are also in danger.”
There’s often an uninvestigated mental health aspect to all of this.
“I would say that one factor people often overlook is perpetrators who are depressed and suicidal… they worry about losing control of the children… and their violence escalates,” Jaffe said.
The chairs of the panel appointed by Governor Cuomo are retired New York State Judge Sherry Klein Heitler, along with Kelli Owens, the Executive Director of the NYS Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, and Sheila Poole, the Commissioner of the NYS Office of Children and Family Services.
The first meeting will be held this month, and Jacqueline Franchetti will be part of it.
“Kyra’s with me all the time when I’m doing this,” Franchetti said. “Today, I want her legacy to be one of change.”
And Franchetti will always remember the last day she spent with Kyra at home, when the little girl had learned to roll down a hill in the backyard,
“She was so proud of that and got up and said, ‘I did it, Mama. I did it.'”
It was part of her little girl’s trademark joy.
“Her laugh was infectious,” Franchetti said. “Anytime she walked in a room, she was like this big ray of sunshine.”