‘Kids for Cash’ documentary reactions: Sadness, shame, ‘shock and surprise’

Centre County Court of Common Pleas Judge Bradley P. Lunsford assured a group of locals that there would not be a scandal similar to the one that shook Luzerne County in the last decade — at least not under him.

On Friday night, a showing of a documentary directed by Robert May made its way to the State Theatre that took an inside look at what was known as the “ Kids for Cash” scandal.

“Kids for Cash,” tells the story of former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella Jr., who was “hell-bent on keeping kids in line,” May said.

Ciavarella was elected judge in 1995. During his tenure, he sentenced and imprisoned more than 3,000 children for crimes as simple as a fabricated MySpace page, May said. During that time, Ciavarella received more than $2 million in bribes from a privately-owned juvenile detention facility where the children were held.

In the summer of 2011, Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years for his involvement in the scandal. He’s serving time at a federal prison in Illinois.

Former Luzerne County judge Michael Conahan was also involved in the scandal after he agreed to send the youth to a private facility instead of one run by the county. He took a plea deal for money laundering, fraud and racketeering charges, and was sentenced to 17 years at a federal prison in Florida and ordered to pay more than $800,000 in restitution.

“I have a variety of emotions,” Lunsford said after viewing the film. “Most come in shock and surprise that this could happen. I have no idea of how something like that could happen in the court system.”

Lunsford said the first thing he thought of was his secretary who he called his closest adviser for the last 18 years.

“Something like that would never be OK by her,” he said. “It just wouldn’t happen.”

May said he began the documentary in 2009 and wrapped it up last August.

“You go into the filmmaking process with an idea, but come out of it with more,” he said. “I have kids, and I think the message is to have respect for kids as kids; not for kids as adults.”

Justin Bodnar got more than he bargained for after he failed to pay fines for crimes he committed at age 12.

Originally charged with harassment and terroristic threats from a fight, he was eventually in and out of the system for seven years, stripping him of his adolescence, he said.

For Hillary Transue, it was a similar situation, but one that helped end alleged corruption after she made a fake MySpace account when she was 15 in 2007 about her high school’s vice principal.

“I was mistreated by the system, but also saved by the system,” she said.

A legal group from Philadelphia assured her that she needed an attorney after she was advised otherwise, Transue said. She only ended up serving three weeks of a three-month sentence.

Transue turned her negative experience into a positive one by working with a group of others featured in the documentary to address awareness and community outreach.

“This isn’t a problem exclusive to our town,” she said.

State College resident Carole Schneiderman admitted she began to cry when she heard that Edward Kenzakoski committed suicide in the spring of 2010.

Kenzakoski’s mother, Sandy Fonzo, blamed Ciavarella for her son’s death after being sentenced to a juvenile detention facility when he was 17 years old.

Her son’s story was one in a handful of stories told in the documentary about youth who the community believed were unfairly detained at the hands of Ciavarella.

“The bottom-line is looking at what this did to the kids,” Fonzo said. “We’re hoping for juvenile judicial reform.”

About a quarter of the theater was filled with locals who wanted to see firsthand what the film was about.

“It makes me ashamed to be from there,” said Janette Pryor, who now lives in Bellefonte.

The viewing was followed by a panel discussion with Lunsford, May, Juvenile Law Center attorney Emily Keller and Jay Paterno.

“Kids for Cash,” will also be played at 4 and 7:30 p.m. at the State Theatre Sunday and Monday.