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Book details justice scandal


February 19. 2013 4:42PM
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The heart-wrenching stories of some of the thousands of children incarcerated by a corrupt Luzerne County judge have been told in print articles and TV news segments as the investigation into his crimes on the bench unfolded and his prosecution played out during the past eight years.


Now that Mark Ciavarella and co-conspirator Michael Conahan are serving sentences in federal prison, a new book has been published that takes the reader through their sordid kickback scheme from start to finish and shares the intimate details of the victims' experiences.


Kids for Cash, by William Ecenbarger, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, also explores the county's century-old culture of corruption that paved the way for such crime to occur. In addition, he contrasts the broken juvenile justice system of Luzerne County with how such a system should operate.


The kids-for-cash story broke with Ciavarella's and Conahan's indictments in January 2009.


The judges were charged with illegally accepting money from the builder and developer of the two juvenile detention centers to which Ciavarella sent many of the juveniles who came before him, keeping the beds full of juveniles and his bank account full of kickback money.


Ecenbarger covered the first of the Interbranch Juvenile Justice Commission hearings – designed to find out how things went wrong in Luzerne County and how to prevent it from happening again – for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He spent the next two and a half years occupied by the story, attending court proceedings, researching documents and interviewing more than 200 people.


Ecenbarger began his book with what he considers the most compelling aspects of the case – the stories of child victims.


First came 13-year-old Matthew, who in 2004 got into a dispute with his mother's boyfriend and threw a steak at him. His mother called the police and asked that assault charges be filed against her son. He went before Ciavarella.


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, Ecenbarger writes.


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.


Ecenbarger then describes Matthew's experience at the privately owned, for-profit juvenile detention center in Pittston Township to which Ciavarella had sent him.


After sharing more stories of juveniles, Ecenbarger tackles the story of coal miners and the Mafia-controlled mine operators who hobbled the unions and bribed state mining inspectors, which cleared the way for unsafe practices and the deaths of many miners.


Quoting local historian Robert Wolensky, Ecenbarger notes how many otherwise upstanding citizens participated in the crooked dealings of the coal industry. The culture of corruption that had engulfed the industry caused serious damage to the community's social and moral fabric, leaving wounds that remain to the present.


Ecenbarger goes on to examine how local corruption found its way into the school systems and paying for teaching jobs became a commonplace and accepted practice. Corrupt politicians, even after indictment, remained popular with voters, some even considered heroes, he notes, pointing to Congressman Daniel J. Flood.


Ecenbarger explores how that culture likely played a part in Conahan's and Ciavarella's decision to proceed with the kickbacks, as well as why prosecutors, public defenders and others never spoke up when Ciavarella failed to inform juveniles that they were entitled to legal counsel and ignored recommendations of probation officers that placement of juveniles wasn't advised.


Ecenbarger notes that it wasn't until Times Leader reporters Mark Guydish and Terrie Morgan-Besecker began to investigate Ciavarella's sentencing practices that some people began to pay attention. Still, a series of stories brought no immediate official action.


It wasn't until Freeland resident Thomas Crofcheck, head of the audit bureau for the state welfare department, got involved that things started to happen.


Ecenbarger writes about Crofcheck's initiative to audit PA Child Care after reading a newspaper story on the county's plan to sign a 20-year $58 million lease to use the PA Child Care facility for juvenile placement after Conahan ordered that the county's facility not be used for health and safety reasons.


Crofcheck turned his findings over to the FBI.


Ecenbarger writes in great detail about the scheme Ciavarella and Conahan carried out and Ciavarella's subsequent trial, and in no less detail describes how a juvenile justice system should operate, according to experts he interviewed.


According to people who were involved in the case, the book is an accurate portrayal of the events comprising Luzerne County's kids-for-cash scandal.


ABOUT THE BOOK

Kids for Cash, a hardcover published by The New Press, sells for $26.95 and is available at Barnes & Noble and through online retailers.





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