The glib, reversible nickname for the scandal — “kids for cash” or “cash for kids” — downplays the part where tweens or teens were shackled and sent to juvenile detention for years for minor mistakes.
In one case, a 14-year-old boy was riding the used red scooter his parents had purchased for $250, unaware it had been stolen. A 14-year-old girl created a snarky, fake MySpace page for a vice principal at her school. In another, a 12-year-old boy, prone to profanity, mouthed off to a woman after walking his little brother to a school bus stop.
As Justin Bodnar, who had a genius IQ by age 7 but was derailed by those obscenities, recalls, “I woke up in a nice bed with my family and I went to sleep with cockroaches and criminals.” He has yet to get his life back on track.
All three of those kids, along with others and their parents, share their stories in the Robert May documentary “Kids for Cash.” The filmmaker, remarkably, also got Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan to appear on camera.
They are the former Luzerne County judges accused of accepting (and failing to properly report) $2.8 million in what they called “finder’s fees” and others labeled kickbacks from privately owned juvenile detention centers.
An illuminating moment comes when Ciavarella, now serving 28 years in a federal prison in Pekin, Ill., while Conahan does 17 years in Florida, describes how his hot-tempered father knocked him out cold when he almost stole a car with some other teens so they could joyride.
Years later, he tried to scare kids with the no-nonsense lectures he regularly delivered in schools and the onerous sentences he meted out, as promised.
That adolescent incident doesn’t excuse what he did and it has no bearing on a 2001 promise — then broken — to not allow any defendant to proceed without a lawyer. Teens and their mothers or fathers say their fates were decided in literally 60 or 90 seconds in the courtroom without any legal counsel.
The most wrenching story is told by a mother, shown screaming and pointing her finger accusingly at Ciavarella outside the federal courthouse in Scranton and later sitting in front of her son’s heart-shaped headstone.
What had started as a misguided attempt to scare 17-year-old Ed Kenzakoski straight — the all-star wrestler had turned into a partying drinker and his dad wanted to teach him a lesson — escalated into boot camp, a later stint in state prison and a self-inflicted gunshot to the heart, mother Sandy Fonzo says.
If “Kids for Cash” were only a 102-minute examination of those families and other key players, such as newspaper reporter Terrie Morgan-Besecker and the founders of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, it would be worthwhile viewing.
But it raises questions that resonate outside Luzerne County about the wisdom of zero-tolerance policies enacted after the Columbine High School shootings, about the 2 million children arrested every year in the United States (95 percent for nonviolent crimes), and the resulting toll in incarceration costs and dropout rates.
The subject matter may be inflammatory, but the tone of “Kids for Cash” is measured. Was it a kids-for-cash scheme? The documentary cannot put us in the jurors’ box, but it allows us to hear some of the key, compelling, damning evidence.