Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a $2.8 Million Kickback Scheme

Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a $2.8 Million Kickback Scheme

by William Ecenbarger


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From the Pulitzer Prize–winning Philadelphia Inquirer reporter William Ecenbarger comes the exposé of a shocking scandal that ruined thousands of young lives—in paperback for the first time. As the Boston Globe wrote, "The story is incredible: Thousands of children wrongfully sentenced to juvenile detention centers, many without legal representation and after cursory hearings, by two rogue judges in northern Pennsylvania who received millions of dollars in bribes from the private institutions' owners." The story has all the elements of a true-crime legal thriller—mafia connections, colorful characters, corruption—and was made into a documentary of the same title, released in theaters in 2014. The Philadelphia Review of Books called the story "harrowing," Library Journal called it "shocking," and the Pittsburgh Tribune called it "heartbreaking."

When it was first released, Kids for Cash brought the story to national attention, where it has stayed ever since. As the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out, this is the "worst stain on Pennsylvania, a state with more than its share of stains…Bill Ecenbarger offers a detail-packed, sickening account of the scandal and its impact. Anyone caring about courts, justice or children should read it."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620970409
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 09/02/2014
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 731,669
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

William Ecenbarger was part of a Philadelphia Inquirer reporting team that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Once an international correspondent for Reader’s Digest, he has been published in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian Magazine, Esquire, Audubon, and other leading newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of Walkin’ the Line, a travel-history narrative about the Mason–Dixon Line. He lives with his wife, a travel photographer, in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Read an Excerpt



At the age of thirteen, Matthew was a quiet boy whose benign, gentle features seemed to demand that a violin be placed in his hands. But inside, the seventh-grader was strung taut between his mother and his father, who had been in a protracted custody battle over him since he was ten. Four days after Thanksgiving 2004, Matthew got into a disagreement with his mother's boyfriend. There was some shoving and angry words, but it wasn't much of a contest. Matthew stood four foot three and weighed eighty-two pounds. His adversary was six foot two and weighed about 210 pounds.

No one was injured in the momentary scuffle. Nevertheless, his mother called the police, and an officer came to Matthew's bedroom, pushed him against the wall, and jabbed a finger at him: "You think you're tough, but you're not. I've dealt with people like you before, and it's no big deal." Then his mother told the officer that Matthew had thrown a piece of steak at her beau, and she wanted to file assault charges against her son.

A month later, three days after Christmas, Matthew was in the dark-paneled Courtroom Four of the Luzerne County Courthouse. He was accompanied by his father and the lawyer his father had retained. Matthew had been assured that even if he was found guilty, his punishment would be light because he had no prior record of offenses. The boy knew he had done nothing wrong, and he believed the justice system would work and treat him fairly. Even so, Matthew's senses were on full alert because he was standing before Judge Mark A. Ciavarella, who had already spoken at Matthew's school three times and warned students that he would be tough on any child who came to his courtroom.

The lawyer told Ciavarella that the incident was part of an ongoing dispute between Matthew's parents, and he asked that Matthew be placed in his father's custody. But his mother and her boyfriend testified that Matthew had thrown the steak. Matthew kept shifting his feet and pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Ciavarella doodled absently on a scratch pad during the testimony and seemed to regard the entire proceeding as an intrusion. Finally, the judge turned to Matthew and asked if he threw the piece of meat. Matthew, his voice squeaky with adolescence, said he had not. Words of explanation formed in his throat, but Ciavarella cut him off and said, "Remanded!" The word hung in the air for a few seconds. Matthew, bewildered, didn't even know what it meant.

Suddenly, two officers, each grabbing an elbow, were escorting all eighty-two pounds of him to an adjacent holding room. He was saucer-eyed with disbelief as they patted him down for weapons. Then they were putting handcuffs on his wrists and shackles on his ankles. Both sets of restraints were attached to a belt around his waist. His mouth went cottony with fear, and he started crying. The restraints were too tight and little darts of pain shot at his wrists and ankles. He begged his captors to loosen the cuffs and the shackles, and they finally did. Then he shuffled out to a waiting van with another boy and two girls, and was driven away. He wondered if this was really happening to him. He reached out and touched the wire mesh barrier in the van. It was real.

About twenty minutes later, the van drove into what appeared to be a garage. But then the door went down behind the vehicle and locked as another door opened in front and the van drove forward and stopped. Because his father was a prison guard and had told him about them, Matthew knew this was a sally port, an entry point to a secure facility that was once a feature of many medieval castles. In modern times, they are used for prisons. Matthew had been taken to PA Child Care, a privately owned, for-profit juvenile detention facility in Pittston, Pennsylvania, that had been opened just two years earlier. It was a state-of-the-art "juvie," but to Matthew it was an ugly jail.

Matthew, his face frozen into a fright mask, was hustled inside, where a woman at a desk took all of his personal items, including his wallet, keys, and a religious medal that said, "I Am a Catholic. Please Call a Priest." He was handed gray sweatpants, a gray sweatshirt, and black plastic flip-flops, and directed to a room to change his clothes. He was ordered to take a shower and wash his hair with an anti-lice shampoo. That night he lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling. Tears rolled down his temples and into his ears.

Ciavarella had sent Matthew to PA Child Care to await a psychological evaluation. In the interim, Matthew went to classes, which he found very easy. They used stapled photocopies of textbooks rather than the books themselves. Fridays they watched movies. Time creaked along, the days passing by like centuries. Finally, on the sixteenth day, Matthew met with the psychologist for about an hour, and the therapist's eventual conclusion was that Mattthew was depressed. "Who wouldn't be?" Matthew asked plaintively years later. Because he blamed her for his predicament, Matthew steadfastly refused to speak to his mother. County probation officers told Matthew he would not be released until he did.

But a week after Matthew's incarceration, his father launched an all-out, frantic effort to get his son out of PA Child Care. He tried to contact his local congressman, state legislators, county officials, the office of Governor Ed Rendell, the state Judicial Conduct Board — anyone who might help. He knocked on doors, wrote letters, made phone calls, and sent emails. He also got in touch with the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, which eventually ran a story outlining Matthew's plight. Five days after the article appeared, Matthew got another hearing before Ciavarella. He was brought to the courthouse in shackles, and as he got off the elevator a woman waiting to step on exclaimed in amazement, "Look at that little kid! What could he have done?" Matthew was released and placed on probation. He had been deprived of his freedom for forty-eight days.

During his seven weeks at PA Child Care, Matthew saw the movie Napoleon Dynamite three times. He came to hate it. When he was not in class, he was confined to his room. He was not allowed to lay on his bed during the day and instead had to sit on a backless stool at a metal desk. "Being in jail is a terrible thing," he said. "I was locked up like an animal."

Matthew returned to the seventh grade and worked hard to get his grades back up to the B level. Many of his former friends avoided him. "Their mothers didn't want their sons hanging around with a juvenile delinquent," he recalled bitterly. He graduated from high school, but seven years after his confinement he still jousted with depression regularly. He wants to be an airline pilot, but he is unable to take the first step toward higher education. "I picture myself in college," he says, closing his eyes with the imagining. "But I just can't do it." At the age of twenty, he is estranged from his mother and lives with his father. He works full-time in a restaurant, making pizzas and serving takeout pasta. There is a lost look about him, as though he has been permanently startled.

When Angelia was fourteen, she and a friend scrawled "Vote for Michael Jackson" on five stop signs with a black felt marker. There had been a spate of stop-sign graffiti all over her hometown, and police decided to charge the girls with all of the offenses — eighty-six counts of vandalism and defacing public property. When Angelia's mother protested that she was only responsible for a few stop signs, she said the officer told her that unless her daughter pled guilty to all of the charges, "he'd make sure she'd see Judge Ciavarella on a day Penn State lost the previous weekend because Judge Ciavarella sends all juveniles to jail if Penn State loses."

Penn State's football season was over by the time Angelia and her friend got into Ciavarella's courtroom, but most of the twenty-minute hearing was taken up by discussions among the judge, court officials, and local police about the National Football League playoffs. The previous weekend, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles had won divisional playoff games, and there was talk of an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl.

Ciavarella seemed to resent being distracted from the gridiron speculations, and he ignored conflicting testimony from an alleged eyewitness who described Angelia as having short black hair. Angelia's long blonde hair reached down to her waist. Angelia and her co-defendant admitted vandalizing five of the signs, but said they had nothing to do with the other eighty-one. Nevertheless, the judge said that even though it had not been proven that the girls had defaced all eighty-six stops signs, he was going to use them as an example to deter others. He ordered them shackled and taken away by juvenile probation officers.

Angelia's mother protested that her daughter was epileptic and subject to seizures under stress, and she shouted to the probation officers leading her away, "She can't go without her medication!" But by this time Ciavarella was part of a rising tide of repartee over the Super Bowl, and he ignored the frantic mother. At PA Child Care, Angelia was placed in a locked room with a bunk and a stool. It felt like a prison. Her mother contacted officials at PA Child Care and warned them Angelia's seizures were brought on by stress. "Her stress level is too high, and I know she's going to have a seizure," she said.

On her second night at the detention center, Angelia's muscles suddenly contracted and she lost consciousness. Her body violently alternated between relaxation and rigidity. The savage muscle contractions lasted about two minutes. When she regained consciousness, she had a throbbing headache. Angelia had had a grand mal seizure. She had banged her head against the cement wall next to her bed so hard that she cracked her dental braces.

The next day she was before Ciavarella again, shackled, handcuffed, and weak from her trauma. As her mother held her upright, she remembered Ciavarella saying, "There's people with worse illnesses in jail. Don't think I won't throw you back." He then released Angelia from detention and placed her under house arrest. However, despite the fact that Angelia had been an A student, Ciavarella refused to allow her to return to her school for three months as part of her punishment. She managed to finish her freshman year with Bs and Cs. But throughout high school Angelia suffered from her brief encounter with Judge Ciavarella.

"She rarely left the house in her teen years," her mother said. "I had to force her to go to her own prom just to have some kind of high school experiences. She never went to football games, never went to anything. And I feel it was from what happened that one time, the very first time she got into trouble. You know, she should maybe have gotten a little bit of punishment, but not an ax thrown at her. It's taken a lot of years for her to come out of that shell. And I blame him for that."

Angelia said she believed her youthful experience changed her outlook permanently: "I've learned that people we put in power just aren't always the ones we should trust. Judge Ciavarella, I thought maybe he could see I wasn't a bad kid. Yes, I did deserve a slap on the wrist. Yes, I did deserve to be punished. Did I deserve what I got? No. Was I punished too harshly? Yes. I just think I was punished too harshly, and I just don't think it was very fair."

Nevertheless, eight years after her encounter with Ciavarella, she was about to graduate from college and planned to pursue a doctorate in sociology so she could teach at the college level.

In November 2003, some members of the literary club at Crestwood High School decided to pull a prank designed to get one of them summoned to the principal's office. It was an asinine idea — the kind of thing adolescents sometimes do. Sixteenyear-old Lisa penned a note that said: "I like to shoot, shoot, shoooot young men. I will tell you now of my Evil Plans. On Nov. 26, I will bring my father's 5 PM semiautomatic handgun to school. I will shoot the kneecaps of innocent young men." Lisa signed the name of another club member. The note was left on a table for easy discovery. It was senseless and insensitive, foolish and foolhardy — especially for someone with a 3.8 grade point average who had never been in trouble before. Lisa was quickly identified as the true author, and by the time she got to the principal's office, she realized she had "done something really stupid." She was contrite, wept, and even offered to get on the school public address system to apologize. Her mother and her grandmother came in, and it was agreed that she should be suspended for three days.

Lisa was ashamed — it was the first time she was ever disciplined in school — but she thought that would be the end of it. Who would actually take her threat seriously? Her father lived in another state, no one else at her home owned a handgun, and there's no such thing as a 5 PM semiautomatic. Lisa was an unlikely terrorist. She often carried spiders and insects outside her house and released them, rather than killing them inside. She didn't believe she had the right to kill anything.

But the next morning she was seated at the dining room table studying her geometry textbook when the doorbell rang. Only her grandfather was home, and he was upstairs, so Lisa went to the door. She was surprised to see two uniformed police officers, who said they were taking her into custody. They stepped into the kitchen, handcuffed her, and as her grandfather stood by helplessly, began to escort her outside. It was cold, and she asked to wear her jacket. Because she was handcuffed, she had to wear it like a blanket. They perp walked her out to the cruiser and ducked her head as they guided her into the backseat. Her eyes brimmed with tears, and then spilled over when she passed her high school. Her friends were inside, sitting in class. She was in the back of a police car in handcuffs.

Lisa was taken to PA Child Care to await a hearing before Ciavarella. But it was the day before Thanksgiving, and the court had closed until the following Monday. She was locked in a room, behind a dead-bolted metal door, for the night. Lisa lay down on her cot and sank into her thoughts. She wasn't afraid. She wasn't angry. She was just lonely. She questioned her self-worth. What did everyone think of her? Would her friends be her friends when she returned to school next week? Did everyone hate her? Did they laugh when they heard what happened to her? The next day she had a cafeteria-style turkey dinner with canned carrots and peas. She sat next to a girl named Michelle who the previous night had tried to carve her name into her forearm with a nail file but had succeeded only as far as "MICH."

After five days in PA Child Care, Lisa, shackled and handcuffed, was taken to the courthouse for a hearing before Ciavarella on charges of making "terroristic threats." Did she write that note, Ciavarella asked. Lisa said she did. She started to explain that she never intended to harm anyone, but the judge silenced her with an admonitory finger. Her attorney told the judge Lisa's note was "a bad prank" and asked the she be placed on probation. Ciavarella interrupted him and sentenced Lisa to an indefinite term at a wilderness camp for girls. The entire proceeding took less than five minutes.

At the camp, some of the girls were tough, inner-city teenagers convicted of violent crimes. But others were there for stealing their father's credit card to buy clothes and for unintentionally bringing a pocketknife to school. At one point while among a group of girls cleaning portable toilets, she began singing the orphanage song from the Broadway musical Annie: "It's a hard-knock life, for us! It's a hard-knock life, for us!" Before long, most of the other girls had joined in.

"Steada treated, we get tricked. Steada kisses, we get kicked!" Nine days after Lisa arrived in detention, Ciavarella ordered her released following appeals from school authorities and recommendations from camp counselors. She had missed two weeks of school, and she had a criminal record. She was ashamed and embarrassed in school. She withdrew from activities. She felt guilty. Some of her former friends and their parents said she deserved what she got and should have been kept in detention for months. She lost her driver's license for a year, and when she got it back the insurance company raised her rates because of her record. She didn't apply for a job if the applications asked for arrests and convictions.

But Lisa graduated from high school, went to college, got a teaching job after earning her BA degree, and got married. Then she and her new husband applied to the Peace Corps. Lisa's application was flagged and put on hold. Sixteen months and many questions later, the couple was finally approved, and in September 2011 they began their assignment in Mozambique. Lisa is still embarrassed about her ill-advised misstep at the age of sixteen.


Excerpted from "Kids for Cash"
by .
Copyright © 2012 William Ecenbarger.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note,
1. Matthew, Angelia, Lisa, and Charlie,
2. Barons and Godfathers,
3. Scooch and the Boss,
4. Minding Their Own Business,
5. The Elephant in the Courtroom,
6. The Cash Flows,
7. Hillary and Jessica,
8. Disgrace and Infamy,
9. The Trial,
10. The Hearings,
11. Our Lock-'Em-Up Society,

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