Kids For Cash: Inside One of the Nation’s Most Shocking Juvenile Justice Scandals
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.
Posted February 10, 2014
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….