DEMOCRACY NOW! / VIDEO INTERVIEW
Published: Wednesday 5 February 2014
“Kids for Cash” is the shocking story of how thousands of children in Pennsylvania were jailed by two corrupt judges who received kickbacks from the builders and owners of private prison facilities.
Today a special on "kids for cash," the shocking story of how thousands of children in Pennsylvania were jailed by two corrupt judges who received $2.6 million in kickbacks from the builders and owners of private prison facilities. We hear from two of the youth: Charlie Balasavage was sent to juvenile detention after his parents unknowingly bought him a stolen scooter; Hillary Transue was detained for creating a MySpace page mocking her assistant high school principal. They were both 14 years old and were sentenced by the same judge, Judge Mark Ciavarella, who is now in jail himself — serving a 28-year sentence. Balasavage and Transue are featured in the new documentary, "Kids for Cash," by filmmaker Robert May, who also joins us. In addition, we speak to two mothers: Sandy Fonzo, whose son Ed Kenzakoski committed suicide after being imprisoned for years by Judge Ciavarella, and Hillary’s mother, Laurene Transue. Putting their stories into context of the larger scandal is attorney Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center. The story is still developing: In October, the private juvenile-detention companies in the scandal settled a civil lawsuit for $2.5 million.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, a special on "kids for cash," the shocking story of how thousands of children in Pennsylvania were jailed by two corrupt judges who received kickbacks from the builders and owners of private prison facilities.
HILLARY TRANSUE: I was known for being the jokester.
SANDY FONZO: Eddie, he was always a fireball.
HILLARY TRANSUE: We were talking about how funny it would be if we made a fake MySpace page about my vice principal.
AMANDA LORAH: I was trying to stay out of trouble. That’s when everything started.
MARK CIAVARELLA: Whatever sins you have committed, you can’t go back and undo it.
TERRIE MORGAN-BESECKER: Ciavarella was a no-nonsense, zero-tolerance judge. He always jailed kids.
MARK CIAVARELLA: You are going to experience prison. I’ll be glad to put you there.
UNIDENTIFIED: The way Ciavarella ran the courtroom, you could have had F. Lee Bailey there, and the kids would have gone away.
MARSHA LEVICK: There’s a mechanism that takes over that keeps kids in that system.
HILLARY TRANSUE: No one listened, because we were kids.
UNIDENTIFIED: There was never any instance of guilt or innocence. They were locking him up.
MARSHA LEVICK: Really high number of kids appearing without counsel.
SANDY FONZO: We have no rights. He’s in their custody now.
UNIDENTIFIED: It is unbelievable. We’re talking about children.
MARK CIAVARELLA: I wanted them to be scared out of their minds. I don’t understand how that was a bad thing.
MSNBC REPORTER: Former Luzerne County judge faces charges tonight.
GREGG JARRETT: In a scandal known as "kids for cash."
ABC NEWS REPORTER: $2.6 million.
STEPHEN COLBERT: In return for sentencing kids to juvenile detention.
MARK CIAVARELLA: I’ve never sent a kid away for a penny. I’m not this mad judge who was just putting them in shackles, throwing kids away.
SANDY FONZO: He went there as a free-spirited kid. He came out a hardened man, I’d say.
LAURENE TRANSUE: Here I was saying, "We can trust that judge to be fair." And that’s not what happened.
AMANDA LORAH: I was scared every day.
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: I was only 14. All those years I missed.
AL FLORA JR.: This is not a cash-for-kids case.
SANDY FONZO: You scumbag! You ruined my life!
AMANDA LORAH: I still wake up from nightmares.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for Kids for Cash, a new documentary years in the making, features interviews with the children, with the parents and two judges at the heart of the scandal. The film is set to open in Philadelphia Wednesday at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
Well, on Monday, I spoke to a number of people featured in the film, including Charlie Balasavage and Hillary Transue. They were both 14 years old when they were sentenced to juvenile detention. I began the interview with Hillary Transue and her mother Laurene. Hillary was sent to juvenile detention after she created a MySpace page mocking her assistant high school principal. Her mother Laurene called the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia for help and sparked an investigation that exposed the kids-for-cash scandal. I asked Hillary how it all began.
HILLARY TRANSUE: I believe it was 2007 when I was on the phone with a friend, and we were just chatting, and I heard a call from the bottom of the stairs. My mother sounded irate, and she yelled up to me, "Do you know anything about a MySpace page?" And I said, "Yeah, from like months ago."
AMY GOODMAN: How old were you?
HILLARY TRANSUE: I was 15.
AMY GOODMAN: What was this MySpace page?
HILLARY TRANSUE: It was a parody page about my vice principal. A couple of friends and I decided it would be funny to make fun of the school disciplinarian on the Internet, and so we created this page. And I remember putting a disclaimer on it, thinking if anybody finds this, at least I can’t get in trouble for it.
AMY GOODMAN: And you said things like—you talked about her and said, "She spends most of her time reading silly teen magazines, daydreaming about Johnny Depp in nothing but tighty whiteys. Ooh, la la"?
HILLARY TRANSUE: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, this was what your mother was yelling up to you about?
HILLARY TRANSUE: Yes. I mean, there were comments on there made by other kids that were not—that were obscene. And I will admit to that. But they were not my comments. I do believe—I think I was held responsible for them because they were on the page. And—
AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened?
HILLARY TRANSUE: Well, I mean, a lot of it is on my mom’s end. She was on the phone with a police officer, and I didn’t really understand what was going on.
AMY GOODMAN: Laurene, can you tell us what happened with this phone call?
LAURENE TRANSUE: Sure. The officer called, asked me if Hillary is my daughter. I said, "Yes." He said, "Well, I’m coming down to arrest her for making a MySpace page about her vice principal." So I yelled up to Hillary, "Do you know anything about a MySpace page and your assistant principal?" And she’s like, "Yeah, from like months ago," at which point the officer started shouting, "I heard her! She confessed! I’m coming down there. I’m arresting her." And I’m like, "Woah, you’re not speaking to my daughter without an attorney. At least give me time to get an attorney." And he started shouting that that’s how parents like me are: We let our kids off the hook. And because I was getting attorneys involved, he was going to charge her with Internet stalking, abuse of the Internet. He told me that they’ve been watching my Internet activity and that he was coming down to arrest her. So—
AMY GOODMAN: What about the lawyer for your daughter?
LAURENE TRANSUE: Well, I got off the phone, and I’m like—now I’m thinking, "Where am I going to find a lawyer at this time of night?" And like, I, you know—
AMY GOODMAN: What time was it?
LAURENE TRANSUE: It was after I had come home from work, so it was in the evening. And I don’t know any lawyers. We’re not the kind of folks that have a lawyer on retainer. So I called my mom, and I said, "Do you know an attorney?" And she’s like, "Well, I do, but, like, not for this. And you’re overreacting. This sounds like a very simple thing that happened. Call the officer back and try and talk to him. Just, you know, follow the law, be cooperative." I’m like, "OK."
So I called the officer back, and he said, "Hey, you keep the lawyers out of it, and I’ll reduce her charges to a misdemeanor of harassment." And I’m like, "Oh, OK, all right, we can do that. Are you still coming down? Can you wait ’til, you know, I have at least someone here while you arrest her or whatever?" And he said, "Oh, no, I don’t have to come down. We’ll send you something in the mail." And then, that was in January, and we didn’t hear anything for months. In fact, I kept calling him, saying, "Where—like, we haven’t received anything."
AMY GOODMAN: So when did you hear, and what happened?
LAURENE TRANSUE: We did get a paper in the mail. We had to go to juvenile probation. We had to do an interview there, bring all of her shot records, birth certificate, all that kind of thing, my financial information. They asked us some very intimate questions, which was odd.
AMY GOODMAN: You have no lawyer.
LAURENE TRANSUE: No, no lawyer. Again, I was told to keep the lawyer out of it, and everything will go simply. And we asked the probation officer, "What’s going to happen now?" And he said, "Well, it’ll probably be probation and possibly community service." "OK, you know, do we get a lawyer?" Like, "No, no, no, no. That—you know, we’ve done the study, you’ll go to court, whatever." "OK."
So then we went to court, and we walked in, and they had tables set up by last name. And we went to the table there, and they said, "Do you have an attorney with you?" And I said, "No." They said, "Sign here." So now I’m assuming, "Oh, this is where we get a public defender." And so I signed this blank form and signed—but you also have to understand that there were dozens of other parents there with their children at their last-name table doing the same exact thing. So I’m like, "OK, this is how it works."
Then we went in a big room, and we waited, and we thought the attorneys would meet us there. No one came. They said, "We’re going in the courtroom." We sat right outside the courtroom. No attorneys came. The prosecutor came out. The assistant principal was there. She gave him a kiss on both cheeks, asked him how the family was. And he said, "Don’t worry about a thing." And we walked into the courtroom. They said, "This is the case of," and the judge stood up and started screaming at Hillary.
AMY GOODMAN: The judge was?
LAURENE TRANSUE: Mark Ciavarella, former judge.
AMY GOODMAN: What was he screaming at you, Hillary?
HILLARY TRANSUE: The first thing he said to me was: "What makes you think you can do this kind of crap?" And it was—it was really off-putting. I was there that day in my mother’s clothing, because she insisted that I look nice, and, you know, at 15 years old, I didn’t have anything appropriate. And, you know, I’m already uncomfortable, and he started screaming at me, "What makes you think you can do this kind of crap?" And I was just terrified. I don’t—I have never been before a judge before, and I wasn’t expecting to be screamed at by one. So it definitely was jarring.
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?
HILLARY TRANSUE: I mean, it took about 30 seconds, so it’s hard for me to have exact details, but he said something along the lines of "Adjudicated delinquent," which meant nothing to me. And then I remember—I remember my mother’s hands leaving my shoulders, and I remember gliding as if in like a dreamlike sort of state to this back room, where I’m—all I can hear is the sound of my mother’s pleading, her wailing and pleading, and I’m being cuffed. And the bailiff is saying—
AMY GOODMAN: You’re being handcuffed?
HILLARY TRANSUE: Yes. And the bailiff says, "Look what you did to your mother." And it’s—just like I said, it’s sort of like time stopped, and I began to veer of to this like parallel universe.
AMY GOODMAN: Laurene, did you—did the judge hand down a sentence right there?
LAURENE TRANSUE: Oh, yes. He said, "Adjudicated delinquent." And he said, "Send her up to FACT AdDel for her to think about what she’s done." And I just started—I looked at the officer, and I’m like, "But that’s not what you said." And I’m like looking at these people who have said, you know, this—it will be probation, possibly community service. And I’m thinking this is crazy, because I had called a—in Pennsylvania, we have magistrates. And I asked, you know, "My daughter’s been accused with this statute of Pennsylvania law." I said, "As an adult, what would be the maximum sentence?" One night in jail and up to a $50 fine. So why on earth would think they would take my daughter, who’s never been in trouble? We had no family issues. We were not involved with the system in any way. Why would I think they would take my daughter away? So, basically, I started, you know, asking him, and then I just started—I became hysterical. This is the best way I can explain it. And I—
AMY GOODMAN: You saw your daughter handcuffed?
LAURENE TRANSUE: No, she was like—it was very odd, because my hands were on her shoulders, and as soon as he said, "Adjudicated delinquent," I really didn’t hear anything else. I had been a caseworker for 16 years, and I knew exactly what that meant. So, I turned and was talking to them, and when I turned again, it was like—it was like she had evaporated. She was just gone.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to our other guest in studio right now. Charlie Balasavage, talk about what happened to you. So, Hillary was 15. How old were you when police first came to your house?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: I was 14.
AMY GOODMAN: How old are you now?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: I’m 23.
AMY GOODMAN: So you’re 14 years old, and the police came over.
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: At first, I thought it would be because I was riding this scooter around without a helmet on, because, you know—and ended up it wasn’t that. It was that someone had called, reported that scooter stolen.
AMY GOODMAN: Where did you get the scooter?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: My parents bought it off of a family member.
AMY GOODMAN: They bought it for you from a family member?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: Yeah, they bought it for me. So, my parents weren’t home at the time, so I had to call them. They rushed home, and the cops—
AMY GOODMAN: The police were there?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: Yeah, the police were there. The cops arrested all three of us and took us down to the police station. And we had to write a statement and everything. We told them what happened, that we bought it. And they said, unfortunately, because we didn’t have no documentation saying that they bought it from my family member, that they’re going to have to charge with receiving stolen property. And so, they said to my parents, you know, if I take the charges, maybe I’ll get probation, maybe not even, just community service. So I agreed to it. I was like, "OK, you know, I’ll do that," because otherwise my parents were going to get charged with it.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you have a lawyer with you?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: No, no lawyer. This was all the cops’ suggestion, too, that I take the charges, nothing will happen, you know. And so, I was like, "OK." And I ended up having to go into court, and when I went into court, it was the same thing. You walk up to that table. They have that form.
AMY GOODMAN: Your mom was with you?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: Yeah, my mom was with me. She signed it. We didn’t have a lawyer at all. We thought also we’d get a public defender. That’s not what happened. We walked into the courtroom. We were really in there for maybe a minute. And the judge already knew what he was going to do with me. I mean—
AMY GOODMAN: This judge was named?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: Ciavarella. And I really don’t even remember what he—oh, he said, clearly, that I have a behavior problem, because I had a speech impediment when I was younger, and because of it, I was made fun of a lot in school, so I had a problem going to school, and he had records of that. So, that was my big problem. He sentenced me to three months in Camp Adams.
AMY GOODMAN: Camp Adams?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: Yeah, Camp Adams.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s called Camp Adams.
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: Yeah, it’s like a boot camp, pretty much.
AMY GOODMAN: Had you ever been detained before?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: No.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you know where you were going?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: No. They shackled me right there in front of my mother and hauled me off.
AMY GOODMAN: And how long did you serve in jail?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: It was the three months I had to do in Camp Adams. Then they do a follow-up where I have to go back to court. And when I went back to court, I ended up having to go to a place called Clearbrook for three months, because I experimented with marijuana. And I—
AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible]
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: Yeah, and I was truthful with them and told them that, yeah, I tried it before. So, apparently, I had a drug problem at that time, so they made me do another three months there.
AMY GOODMAN: When you first went to jail, you talk in the film, [Kids for Cash], about having to earn a pillow?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: Oh, yeah. That was for my first two weeks at Camp Adams. They have like a system. Your first 30 days there, you’re a—it’s called like a ranger. You do nothing but like physical training and stuff like that. And yeah, every time I would ask for a pillow, no one would ever get me one. And finally, once I moved past that ranger stage, they moved me to a different cabin. I finally got a pillow. So—
AMY GOODMAN: So, ultimately, how long did you serve in prison?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: Altogether? It was about five years.
AMY GOODMAN: Five years.
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you end up in jail for five years, on and off?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: Parole—probation violations.
AMY GOODMAN: So you would get out?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: Yeah, I would get out. I would not go to school or something, like curfew.
AMY GOODMAN: How did jail affect you?
CHARLIE BALASAVAGE: I mean, I was in there with people that—people that actually belong there, that I’ve heard things, and, like, I guess I could say I was influenced, I mean, by these people. Even staff would say to me, "What are you doing here? Why are you here?" And I would say, "I don’t know."
AMY GOODMAN: That was Charlie Balasavage, one of thousands of children convicted in the kids-for-cash scandal in Pennsylvania. We also heard from Hillary Transue and her mom Laurene. All three are featured in the new documentary, Kids for Cash, that’s premiering in Philadelphia Wednesday night, looking at how two judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, took kickbacks from private prisons. In our next segment, we’ll speak with Sandy Fonzo. Her son Ed is not with her. You’ll find out why. We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As we continue our special on "kids for cash," the shocking story of how thousands of children in Pennsylvania were jailed by two corrupt judges who received kickbacks from the builders and owners of private prison facilities, we return to our conversation with some of the people featured in the new documentary, Kids for Cash. In this segment, we continue speaking with Laurene Transue, whose daughter Hillary was sentenced to juvenile detention for making a MySpace page that mocked her assistant principal. But first we turn to Sandy Fonzo. Her 17-year-old son, Ed Kenzakoski, was sentenced to 30 days in a juvenile boot camp by Judge Mark Ciavarella. I began by asking Sandy to describe how her son Ed first came to be arrested.
SANDY FONZO: Just a regular, normal, happy life we had. And the summer of his senior year, what would have been his senior year, he started, you know, experimenting a little, too, and sneaking out of the house at night. I knew he was drinking. I always—you know, it was just me and him. So when I did have a problem with him, it was always, you know, "I’m going to call your dad, and your dad’s going to come." But now he’s, you know—
AMY GOODMAN: He was a star wrestler?
SANDY FONZO: Yeah, star wrestler. I mean, the scouts were all looking at him, many opportunities for scholarships. They were watching him since he was in junior high wrestling for high school. He just had a lot—a lot before him, you know, a lot of good. You know, he had a girlfriend at the time that was telling me stuff about him experimenting and, you know, just getting a little bit out of control. I would call his dad, and his dad couldn’t do anything anymore. You know, he was this big kid, you know, six-one and big muscles. He would lift all the time. And not doing anything than any other—you know, than what I did at 17 years old, either. But he just had so much to lose.
And it got to the point that his dad called one day, and Ed wasn’t home. You know, he was supposed to be home in school, he’s supposed to be in school. And he found out that he was at an underage drinking party. And he had friends that he graduated with that were cops, so he talked to them, and they were going to go in and put some, you know, paraphernalia on him just to get him caught, get him a slap on the wrist, let him—you know, community service, educational program, anything to let him know what—you know, he has just too much, too much to lose. And this is his senior year. He’s wrestled since he was four years old. And so, that’s what happened. They went and got him, and they took him in. He sat two—
AMY GOODMAN: They planted drug paraphernalia?
SANDY FONZO: Drug paraphernalia, marijuana pipe.
AMY GOODMAN: In his truck?
SANDY FONZO: Yes. And so—
AMY GOODMAN: A marijuana pipe.
SANDY FONZO: Right. And so, you know, I get the call that he’s down at the police station. Juvenile court isn’t until Tuesday, so for the weekend he had to stay in jail. Tuesday comes along, and now all along, you know, we’re talking to the probation people. We’re talking, actually, to the judge also. There was a sit-down in—you know, with these cops and—
AMY GOODMAN: Judge Ciavarella?
SANDY FONZO: Judge Ciavarella, that this was all, you know, in his best interest just to get him a little slap on the wrist, wise him up, scare him straight. He’s a great kid. He has a great future ahead of him. And yeah, we know. There’s, you know, nothing you have to worry about. We don’t need a lawyer—the same story. You got off the elevator, and they were there. "Do you have a lawyer?" "No, we were told we don’t need one." "OK, sign." And that was it.
I don’t know. I was just very naive. And, I mean, I was—never in my wildest dreams would I think these people that are supposed to have—you know, they were the professionals. They have your child’s interest at best—best at heart. And these are the people that you trust, and everything’s going to be OK. You know, he’s going to learn a little lesson, and everything will be fine.
And we stood there, and in 30 seconds he was cuffed and shackled and taken away. And, I mean, that was the worst feeling, seeing him turn and look at me like, you know, "What’s going on?" And there was nothing I can do. That’s frozen into my psyche for the rest of my life, that look that was on his face. They took him to the PA Child Care and said that he would be there until he got this psychological evaluation, which we all know was Judge Conahan’s son-in-law, brother-in-law?
LAURENE TRANSUE: I think it was son-in-law.
SANDY FONZO: Yeah, that was doing these psychological evaluations. Well, it was a whole 30 days—
AMY GOODMAN: The other judge who ended up being convicted.
SANDY FONZO: The president judge that made Judge Ciavarella the juvenile justice judge, yeah. So, he sat in there for 30 days, got his psychological evaluation.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you able to see him there?
SANDY FONZO: Yes, you were allowed on certain days and certain times to go see him and talk to him. And he wanted nothing more. "Mom, I know, you know, this was so stupid. I just want to get back. I’ve missed so much wrestling practice. This is my senior year." All he wanted to do was get back to school. I had letters from the teachers, letters from the judges—or, I’m sorry, from the coaches, in lieu of Ed’s character, of what a great kid he was, sent to the judge’s chambers. And anyway, we had to go. So, we’re going now for 30 days, you know, and I thought to myself, "OK, you know, this was good. He sat there. He got his head together. He wants to get back to school. Everything’s good."
Well, we went and stood back in front of that judge, and he was shackled and cuffed and taken to a boot camp out in—it was Northwestern Boot Academy, an hour away from our house, total military. They couldn’t speak. They couldn’t do anything. They were dressed in military attire. He was with, you know, people from all over that committed actual—when he would tell me the crimes that were committed, this is whom my son was in with. They broke you down, I mean tore you apart, humiliated you. He wouldn’t tell me what happened when he was in there.
AMY GOODMAN: How long was he sent—did Judge Ciavarella—
SANDY FONZO: Three months. He went in there for three months. And then, from there, because Ciavarella said he had a drug problem, then he would have to go to Clearbrook, which was, you know, a rehabilitation for addictions. By the time my son got there, if he ever did have a problem with drugs or alcohol, he was never treated, because they said, "This kid has spent so much time already, we can’t even keep him." So then he was just released and thrown back out. "Get back your life." No school, because they gave him that amount of schooling in there, so he never got to go back to his high school, never got to wrestle. He was a just—he was a mess when he came out of there. He—
AMY GOODMAN: Lost all chance of scholarship.
SANDY FONZO: He wouldn’t talk about what happened in there. He—
AMY GOODMAN: How long had he been altogether now in jail, prison?
SANDY FONZO: Three, four—he was one month there, three months there, and—five months, approximately. But he came out of there a changed person. Like I said, he was a 17-year-old, free-spirited boy, and he came out a hardened man that wouldn’t even talk about what in—so, to this day, I don’t know what happened to him in there, but he would never talk about it. But he was just a different person. You know, he—very bottled up, you know, wouldn’t speak, and no respect for the justice system at all. He knew he was wronged. He knew what was taken away. He lost his little girlfriend while he was in there. She left him for somebody, you know. He just lost, in that age, at that impressionable age, way too much. He had way too much taken from him, everything his—everything he had, really.
And he ended up getting into a fight while he was still on probation, so he would have to go in front of Judge Ciavarella again. And now Ciavarella takes him for four months and sends him to his other facility out in the PA Child Care in western Pennsylvania for four months now—loses his job, loses everything again. The people that worked there couldn’t understand why this almost 20-year-old is doing in this juvenile facility. Nobody understood. But he came out of there, and, I mean, that was it. He ended up in a fight, which he had to go into—and the fight that he did get into, that we took to adult court, was thrown out. It was just a fight between two kids. It was nothing. But Ciavarella, you know, four months, he went to his other facility that they were receiving profit for. And that was it. He got into the fight. He was sentenced to a state prison for it, and he came out. He lasted for almost five months, and then—that’s it.
AMY GOODMAN: Then he shot himself.
SANDY FONZO: Yeah, in his heart.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sandy Fonzo. She is talking about her son, Ed Kenzakoski, who took his own life after an ordeal that lasted years, when he ended up originally in the court of Judge Ciavarella. In the midst of what you were saying, Sandy, you said you came to know that Judge Ciavarella was now being investigated, even though your son Ed would continue to be his victim. That takes us back to Laurene Transue now, because when Hillary was taken away from you in shackles, you started to investigate the judge yourself. Explain what happened—or at least take some action yourself.
LAURENE TRANSUE: Well, so, in the beginning, it was all about my daughter. So I don’t know that any of this other stuff is going on. What happened is, when they finally let me go from the room I was in immediately following the hearing, they allowed me—actually, they called my husband using my phone. And it was cold, very cold that day for April, and they sat me outside the courthouse in a metal chair and told me I was not allowed to come back in. So, as I sat there, I’m like, "But I don’t—I don’t know anything. Like, where is she? Where’s my information?" And they handed me a business card from the probation department with a man’s first name on the back of it and told me that that’s who I should contact. But I had no idea who that was.
So my husband came and picked me up. But you’re really in a state of shock when this happens, because it’s so ridiculous, so—just you can’t fathom it. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. So that first afternoon, my father, my stepmother came, my mother was calling me. They kept saying to me, "She had to have done something more. There has to be more to this." And I’m like, there really—
AMY GOODMAN: More than a MySpace page—
LAURENE TRANSUE: Yeah, like—and I’m like, "No, really, like there"—
AMY GOODMAN: —making fun of her assistant principal.
LAURENE TRANSUE: Mm-hmm. I said, "There really is nothing else." And so I just cried and cried and cried and cried. And finally, my father said to me, "This is not the"—they call me Laurie in my family. He says, "This is not the Laurie I know. She wouldn’t just sit here and give up." And I’m like, "But, Dad, this is a judge. Like, what am I going to do?" He goes, "Well, you’re going to fight."
So I called the name on the back of the card, and it turned out it was a public defender in our county. And he laughed at me when I said, "You have to file an appeal. This is insane." He goes, "Ciavarella doesn’t allow appeals." So, I’m like, "Are you telling me that we can’t appeal or just that it’s pointless or it’s not allowed? Like, what are you saying?" He goes, "Well, it’s pointless, but Ciavarella wouldn’t even like schedule it for you." I’m like, "OK." So I called the public defender’s office in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania is a commonwealth, so things run a little bit differently in a commonwealth. I called the public defender’s office—
AMY GOODMAN: In the capital, Harrisburg.
LAURENE TRANSUE: In the capital. And they told me, "Well, no, of course juveniles can have appeals, but we’re not getting involved in a county matter. OK, so I called the governor’s action line. And they were like, "Oh, we’ll—you know, we’ll make note of this." I said, "Well, who else can I call?" "Try the ACLU."
So I called the ACLU. I explained the situation. They said, "Absolutely, you have a case here. She had a right to put whatever she wants on MySpace, especially a parody. And she put a disclaimer that that’s what it is. And we’d be happy to take that case, but we’re not going to get involved in this county placement thing and custody." And I’m like, "But now what do I do?" "Well, we have some other numbers," one of which was a woman at Rutgers in New Jersey. So I was like, "OK, I’m a Jersey girl. Maybe I’ll get lucky there." So I called there, and the woman was so sympathetic, and she said, "Listen, I know somebody. A friend of mine works at Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, and since you’re in Pennsylvania, maybe they can help you."
So I called Juvenile Law Center, and I kind of gave them the information. And the person I spoke to, his name was Laval, and he was very, very soft-spoken, not excitable at all. So I didn’t know how to read him. And he said that he would check with Marsha Levick, who was the head of the Juvenile Law Center, and find out if they could take Hillary’s case. So I said, "OK." And he would call me back. Well, the next day, he hadn’t called back, and so my father said, "You give me that number," and he called them.
The next thing I know, they were calling me, saying, yes, they were willing to take the case, but not for me. They would not be my attorney. They represent children, and they would represent Hillary as long as I was agreeable and Hillary was agreeable. Would I—would it be OK if they met with her? I’m like, "Yeah, absolutely." And I said, "Listen, just let me know how much I have to pay, because, like, I do have a house. I don’t have much equity, but I can get some loans and get some money together." And they’re like, "No, I don’t think you understand. We’re here for children. We want to help your daughter. Don’t worry about any of that." I said, "OK." So they went and saw Hillary. And for the first time, we had hope. I still couldn’t see her for three weeks. I was allowed a one-minute phone call.
AMY GOODMAN: You could not see your 15-year-old daughter for three weeks?
LAURENE TRANSUE: No, no.
AMY GOODMAN: One minute? Sixty seconds?
LAURENE TRANSUE: Yes, that first phone call was the two of us sobbing, hysterical, both apologizing to the other. It was a conversation of "I’m sorry," "No, I’m sorry, Mom," "No, Hillary, it’s my fault. I’m so sorry." That was our one minute, and then it was over. And then the next week, I think we got five minutes, and the next week was eight minutes.
HILLARY TRANSUE: I think it was just eight minutes.
LAURENE TRANSUE: But somebody is there listening, and if she started to talk about anything to do with a lawyer and getting out of there, they cut her off.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to fast-forward to 2011. Judge Ciavarella is charged, tried and convicted. It’s eight years after Sandy Fonzo’s son first was confronted by the judge and sent away. And so, after Judge Ciavarella is convicted, Sandy Fonzo, who has now lost her son, Ed Kenzakoski—he shot himself in the heart—she confronts the judge.
AL FLORA JR.: This is not a cash-for-kids case, and we hope somebody starts getting the message.
SANDY FONZO: Oh, it wasn’t? Because my kid’s not here anymore! My kids not here! He’s dead! Because of him! He ruined my [bleep] life! I’d like him to go to hell and rot there forever!
SECURITY GUARD: Ma’am, come on.
SANDY FONZO: No! You know what he told everybody in court? They need to be held accountable for their actions. You need to be! Do you remember me? Do you remember me? Do you remember my son? An all-star wrestler? He’s gone! He shot himself in the heart! You scumbag!
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that, Sandy. What happened? You were there for his trial?
SANDY FONZO: I planned on being, and then when it came up, I couldn’t get myself to go and sit there and look at him and hear the lies. And I kept myself away until the day of the guilty—you know, when he was found guilty, I wanted to be there. I was actually working, and I kept getting messages from everybody that he’s found guilty of this, he’s found guilty of that, you know, and I’m having a panic attack. And they’re going to take him. They’re going to shackle him, and they’re going to take him, and he’s going away today. So, every—I was a mess by now, an emotional train wreck. And everybody at work was like, "Go." I just wanted to be there. I wanted to see him come out of there in shackles, and I wanted to see him go away.
And I don’t know how, I got myself there. Somehow I drove myself there. Nobody knew I was there. And I—everybody thought I was at work. I don’t remember the ride at all. I just ended up there. And I heard—while I’m standing out there, I learned that he is not—he’s going to be released to his daughter’s—I don’t know—
AMY GOODMAN: Custody.
SANDY FONZO: Custody, and that he won’t be going to jail. So, you know, I just lost all hope again. You know, it’s always—it always seems like you’re just let down all the time. And they were going to do a press release, and he was coming out with his lawyer, Al Flora.
AMY GOODMAN: To do a press conference—
SANDY FONZO: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —on the steps of the courthouse.
SANDY FONZO: On the steps of the courthouse. So when he was coming, I just went with all the media and everybody that was there. And I was just there, and I had no idea. But when, you know, they started, "Yeah, this was not 'kids for cash,'" I just lost it. I don’t remember what I said. I don’t remember what came out of my mouth. All I know is that all I remember is being, you know, taken across the street after that, and that’s all I remember.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Sandy Fonzo. Her son, Ed Kenzakoski, committed suicide after years in and out of jail. He was first sentenced at the age of 17 by Judge Mark Ciavarella. When we come back, we’ll speak with a lawyer who helped hold the judges accountable and the director of the new film that tells the story, Kids for Cash. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Today we’re spending the hour looking at the kids-for-cash scandal, the shocking story of how thousands of children in Pennsylvania were jailed by two corrupt judges who received kickbacks from the builders and owners of private prisons, PA Child Care in Pittston Township and its sister company, Western PA Child Care in Butler County, Pennsylvania. Let’s turn to an excerpt of the new documentary, Kids for Cash. This clip features one of the jailed children, Amanda Lorah.
AMANDA LORAH: I was in eighth grade. I was 13. Me and this girl, we used to be friends. She was sitting back, calling me a slut and a whore, and "I can’t stand you," because we weren’t friends anymore. So I threw a volleyball at her. Then, when she walked past me, she did one of those hair kind of flips in my face. And then, I had—it meant it was over. We ended up fighting. They took me to the office, with the police officer, called my father, told him to come get his "crazy daughter out of their school. She’s starting trouble."
TERRY LORAH: Your kid was locked up for slapping a girl. It shouldn’t have never went any farther than the local magistrate, if the school wasn’t satisfied with suspending her for three days—not out to a juvenile judge. And then to find out it was all from greed.
AMANDA LORAH: This lady, she pulled my dad back, and she grabbed my arm. And she’s like, "Come with me."
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from the new film, Kids for Cash. The film’s director and producer, Robert May, joins us now. His past films include The War Tapes, The Station Agent and the Oscar-winning Fog of War.
We’re also joined by Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He began by criticizing the legal community for failing to stop the kids-for-cash scandal.
ROBERT SCHWARTZ: There was a whole legal community passing through that courtroom who did nothing over a five-year period. The public defender did nothing. In fact, later investigations showed that they just didn’t want to take on more cases, and they certainly didn’t want to take on Judge Ciavarella. The private bar was in the room. They did nothing. The prosecutors were there for every case. They saw kids being shackled and dragged out of courtrooms.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, a lot of people say, "Well, they’re the prosecutor."
ROBERT SCHWARTZ: Well, but they have an ethical obligation to see that justice is done. That’s in the Code of Professional Responsibility. And they failed that code, as well. Probation officers saw that kids were being dragged out of the courtroom for really minor stuff. While the rest of the country was moving towards a treat-kids-in-the-community, de-incarcerate this juvenile justice system, in Judge Ciavarella’s court it was exactly the opposite. It was: Send kids away. And one after the other was sent away.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you already felt that the judges—this judge was guilty for sending away so many kids. We’re talking thousands of kids.
ROBERT SCHWARTZ: We knew that he had violated the rights of hundreds and hundreds of kids at the time we did our initial investigation. In the spring of 2008, we filed an application with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, asking them to reverse all of these adjudications of delinquency, these findings of guilt, and erase the kids’ records. We asked them to exercise what we call the court’s King’s Bench jurisdiction. It would enable them to act even though the time for appeal had lapsed.
After we filed that petition, the FBI called our chief counsel, Marsha Levick, and asked what did we know. Unbeknownst to us, they had started an investigation of their own of Judge Conahan, the former president judge of Luzerne County, because of his connections with organized crime. So, there were a couple of threads happening at the same time that intersected and finally came to the public—public light in January of 2009, when the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania issued the bills of information with some preliminary guilty pleas for Judge Ciavarella and Judge Conahan.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Ciavarella was charged with and this whole issue of "kids for cash."
ROBERT SCHWARTZ: Judge Ciavarella was charged with theft of unlawful services—theft of lawful services—you know, the theft makes it unlawful—wire fraud, tax evasion. And the original bill of information that he and Conahan signed also spoke about a quid pro quo, that he was taking money to have kids locked up. But what we did know for sure was that he had taken money, or was charged with taking money and agreed in the original plea agreements, from the contractor who built a new detention center in Luzerne County and from one of the owners of the for-profit facility that was subsequently built.
AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us to Robert May, the director and producer of this new documentary, Kids for Cash. His past films include The War Tapes and the Oscar-winning Fog of War. You did something very unusual. You not only began over the next years to capture the stories of the families, of the parents and the kids who were sent away, but you also managed to talk to both judges who were convicted, but you did it well before they were convicted. Explain.
ROBERT MAY: Well, you know, we initially said, look, we’re not going to do this movie unless we can get access to both the villain and the victim, because it would just become another story with a sort of one-dimensional story. And the kids’ story seemed so obvious, and that there had to be more to the story. And we wanted to understand more what that would be.
AMY GOODMAN: So how did you get these judges to talk?
ROBERT MAY: Well, it took some time, because I didn’t know them at all and never met them before. And once I figured out how to meet with Judge Ciavarella, the pitch was actually quite simple. I said to him, I said, "I think there’s sort of a one-dimensional story that is being portrayed, primarily by the media, that you are the kids-for-cash judge. You took money to send kids away. You traded kids for cash. That’s it. That’s what I see. That’s what I read. That’s all I see. I assume there’s another side to this story."
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to a clip from your film, from Kids for Cash, of former judge Mark Ciavarella.
MARK CIAVARELLA: I have not told my attorney that I agreed to do this documentary. And maybe me doing what I’m doing is going to come back to hurt me, but I felt this was an opportunity for me to let people know what really happened. I’m not this mad judge who was just throwing kids away and shipping them out and locking them up and putting them in shackles. No one would ever look at the whole picture. They only wanted to look at a little bit of the picture. All the media ever focused on was "cash for kids." If that was something that the feds wanted to charge us with, then bring the charges, and we’ll go to trial.
AMY GOODMAN: So there is Judge Mark Ciavarella. Robert May, explain these conversations you had with him over a period of years. He says it wasn’t "kids for cash."
ROBERT MAY: Right. He—we wanted to follow the active story here, literally, and follow him and the other judge through the prosecution, what was all going to happen. And our interview process is long. It takes a long time, and they’re very conversational. And we covered all sorts of things, from, you know, the time of the judges’ earliest memories all the way through the prosecution. And so, I think we developed a level of trust where he just started talking to us about all of it, and in great detail.
AMY GOODMAN: And Judge Michael Conahan, why did he decide to do this? And what about the relationship between these two judges? He was the so-called president judge?
ROBERT MAY: That’s right. Right. Well, Michael Conahan, when he was—when he was judge, you know, he really was—had an immense power. He really did. And he was also a judge that never gave a comment to the media. He just never spoke to the media. So it was very unusual for us to get him, really. But he, too, felt that the story was portrayed as one-sided, and he wanted to take the opportunity to, you know, share his side of the story.
AMY GOODMAN: This goes to the issue of zero-tolerance policy.
ROBERT SCHWARTZ: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the reconsideration of that, where it’s being reconsidered, where it isn’t, even up to President Obama.
ROBERT SCHWARTZ: Right, that’s a great question. Zero-tolerance policy came into favor in the 1990s. Even 20 years ago, Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act to keep guns out of school, but school districts went much farther. They were expelling kids for very, very little. After Columbine in 1999, it got even worse, not in terms of legitimately dealing with the gun issue, but illegitimately dealing with trivial offenses in school, so administrators could get rid of kids that they didn’t want in the classroom.
There’s been a gradual backlash over the last five to 10 years, and this story is part of that backlash. Parents’ advocates, children’s lawyers, the Dignity in Schools Campaign and many of our colleagues have worked to undo really quite silly zero-tolerance policies. And in early January, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and the Department of Education in Washington, the federal agencies, issued guidance to the 15,000 or so school districts in the United States, saying, "You really have to be careful, because zero-tolerance policies are being applied incorrectly, without fairness, with implications for racial and ethnic disparities in our systems, in ways that are really hurting kids." And for the first time, we have the federal government saying, "Slow down. What seemed reasonable 20 years ago, in practice, has turned out to be remarkably unreasonable and unfair to children and to families and to community."
AMY GOODMAN: Robert May, what were you most surprised by in making this film? And this has taken you years to make.
ROBERT MAY: I was most surprised by the fortitude of the families and the kids, and how smart they really are, the families and the kids. And, you know, these are families, I think, that Judge Ciavarella judged as—you know, as not worthy or something. It’s hard to say. I mean, you know, the stigma of this kid did something wrong, and so therefore this kid is flawed. And spending time with the kids and families has been amazing for me, because these are really smart people. They’ve been—these kids have been deprived an education—not all, but most. Hillary is the exception. She has a great education. She narrowly escaped not having that, however. And so, I think that in society we think that if a kid gets into trouble, especially if they’re labeled a juvenile delinquent, we think, "They’re just a bad kid. I don’t want my kids to be associated with them." I mean, I have two teenagers. So, I used to think that way. I used to think, "Well, that kid’s a troublemaker, gets into trouble. I don’t want my kids near that kid," because I judged that kid as just a bad kid—and the parents, too. They’re all bad.
The other thing that I learned is it wasn’t just the kids that went through the trauma. It’s the parents, as well. It’s the families. The families have gone through tremendous trauma. So—and often, you know, the kid gets punished for things, in some cases, that the parents are doing, as well. So, it’s a combination of things. But I think all of the families that we followed in this film, even including the ones that didn’t make it into the film, as we followed other stories, as well, will be certainly forever in my heart. I care about them all.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Robert May, the director and producer of the new documentary, Kids for Cash, and Bob Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Judge Mark Ciavarella is currently serving a 28-year sentence, and President Judge Michael Conahan is serving 17 years, for taking $2.6 million from two private prisons. Ciavarella is serving his sentence in Illinois, Conahan in Florida. Both judges spoke to filmmaker Robert May before they went to jail. In October, the private juvenile detention companies at the heart of the kids-for-cash scandal in Pennsylvania settled a civil lawsuit for $2.5 million. The film, Kids for Cash, is set to open in Philadelphia on Wednesday night at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia. It then opens in theaters nationwide. We’ll post details on our website. You can also visit our website for our past coverage of the kids-for-cash scandal. That’s democracynow.org.