Sandy Fonzo of Wilkes-Barre screams at former Judge Mark Ciavarella saying that he was responsible for her son’s suicide on the steps of the federal courthouse
February 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
By Larry Getlen
February 23, 2014 | 1:41am
Hillary Transue, 14, created a fake, humorous Myspace page about her school’s vice principal.
Justin Bodnar, 12, cursed at another student’s mother.
Ed Kenzakoski, 17, did nothing at all.
It didn’t matter.
As we see in the documentary “Kids for Cash,” which opens Friday, all three Luzerne County, Pa. teens met the same fate for their minor infractions.
They were hauled into court with their parents, sometimes after being persuaded — coerced, according to at least one parent — by police to waive their right to legal counsel.
They were brought before Judge Mark A. Ciavarella and, without warning or the chance to offer a defense, found themselves pronounced guilty, shackled and sentenced to months of detention in a cockroach-infested jail.
They were trapped in the juvenile justice system for years, robbing most of them of their entire high-school experience.
Hillary Transue was sent to juvenile detention for making a fake Myspace page for her teacher.Photo: AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Judge Ciavarella, who sentenced around 3,000 children in a similar manner, was later sentenced himself to 28 years in prison for financial crimes related to his acceptance of $2.2 million as a finder’s fee for the construction of a for-profit facility in which to house these so-called delinquents.
The scandal was called “Kids for Cash,” and it rocked the state in 2009 — for the accusation that Ciavarella was happy to tear families apart in exchange for the payoff.
Kenzakoski was diagnosed with ADD before he was 10 and drinking by 14, and his parents were so worried about him that his father developed a plan to scare him straight.
Along with two police officer buddies, Kenzakoski’s father planted a marijuana pipe in the boy’s truck, hoping he would be arrested and turned around after a confrontation with the authorities.
But the second part of that plan went awry, and Ciavarella sent the boy away.
In the film, Bodnar recalls how, shackled and torn from his home for saying a dirty word, he approached the facility on a convict bus and saw the 20-foot razor wire.
“I’m now one of those people you see in the movies,” thought the 12-year-old, who would smoke pot for the first time three months later, influenced by “living around criminals” in a facility intended to make him a better person.
After her release from incarceration, Transue returned to school with a stigma, viewed as a criminal by her teachers and under watch from her probation officer, who kept an office in the school.
Mark Ciavarella was elected to a 10-year-term as Luzerne County judge in 1995, on a platform of getting tough on teen crime. Much admired for his stance, he was a frequent speaker at schools and was re-elected in 2005.
Knowing he was sending children to a run-down detention facility, Ciavarella decided a new one was needed and approached power broker Judge Michael Conahan, who assembled an investor group to build a private, for-profit detention facility named PA Child Care.
Ciavarella was paid a finder’s fee of 10 percent of construction costs, or $2.2 million, by its builder.
Undone by a tip from a reputed underworld friend of Conahan’s, among other information, Ciavarella had 2,480 of his convictions reversed and expunged.
A scene from “Kids for Cash.”
After his initial release, Bodnar, now 24, was shipped off to a military academy. He now works as a cook. Transue, 22, eventually graduated from college.
A fender-bender landed Kenzakoski back in court when he was 19. Ciavarella again sentenced him to a juvenile facility. When he got out, said his mother, his demeanor was all pent-up anger, and a fight landed him in state prison.
He was released in January 2010. That Memorial Day, after a day of drinking and arguing with his father, Ed Kenzakoski placed a gun against his heart, and pulled the trigger. Had he lived, he would now be 27 years old.
The most harrowing moment in the film occurs during Ciavarella’s trial. As his lawyer holds a press conference outside the courthouse, Kenzakoski’s mother, Sandy Fonzo, who had been standing to the side, unleashed years of pain and anguish on the man she held responsible.
“My kid’s not here anymore! He’s dead! Because of him!” she screamed, pointing at Ciavarella as news cameras rolled. “He ruined my f—ing life!!! Go to hell, and rot there forever! You know what he told everybody in court — [the kids] need to be held accountable for their actions! You need to be!”
At the end of “Kids for Cash,” directed by Robert May, information flashes across the screen saying: “Two million children are arrested every year in the US, 95% for non-violent crimes”; that “66% of children who have been incarcerated never return to school”; and that “the US incarcerates nearly 5 times more children than any other nation in the world.”