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Reaction Paper to the Documentary Kids for Cash

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Few documentaries induce as much visceral outrage as Kids for Cash, Robert May’s account of the eponymous juvenile court scandal that rocked the nation when it came to light several years ago

Concerning two judges who were sentenced to prison for accepting kickbacks from the developer of a private juvenile detention center to which over 3,000 children were sentenced to draconian prison terms, this riveting documentary is a real-life thriller that rivals the most dramatic fiction in terms of emotional impact. Having recently received its world premiere at the Doc NYC festival, Kids for Cash is poised to garner significant attention upon its theatrical release early next year.

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Ciavarella tells this story in series of riveting interviews — conducted without the judge’s attorney’s knowledge — in a new documentary directed by Robert May, called “Kids for Cash,” named after the scandal that dominated headlines, airwaves and dinner table conversations in this industrial town of roughly 40,000, the county seat of Luzerne County, near the Pocono Mountains in Northeastern Pennsylvania. “It’s the story behind the story,” May said of “Kids for Cash,” which opens nationwide at the end of the month. Ciavarella is doing time for his involvement in what prosecutors say was an elaborate kickback scheme for accepting what Ciavarella called “finder’s fees” from Robert Mericle, head of the largest developer in Wilkes-Barre, which built two for-profit juvenile centers to replace the crumbling county-run facility. Ciavarella proudly ran on a platform of zero tolerance in the mid 1990s. He ran ads during election season that promised he would teach children how to listen to rules if parents couldn’t. He kept a busy schedule on the lecture tour circuit, telling anyone who would listen that he would throw children in prison if given the chance. His message reflected what many experts say was the dominant one from law enforcement in the wake of the shootings in Columbine.

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Altogether, 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. 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.”

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