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Author puts Luzerne County's 'Kids for Cash' judicial scandal in context for kids

Investigative journalist Candy J. Cooper is the author of 'Shackled,' a new book about Luzerne County's 'Kids for Cash' judicial scandal written for young adults.
Kate Albright
Submitted to WVIA
Investigative journalist Candy J. Cooper is the author of 'Shackled,' a new book about Luzerne County's 'Kids for Cash' judicial scandal written for young adults.

Luzerne County’s “Kids for Cash” judicial scandal has been recounted for newspaper and book readers, television viewers and documentary audiences.

The latest account is intended for a particularly poignant constituency: young adults.

“I wanted to impart to kids what their rights are,” said Candy J. Cooper, a veteran investigative journalist and author of “Shackled: A Tale of Wronged Kids, Rogue Judges and a Town that Looked Away,” published by Astra Books.

It’s also a cautionary tale about ignoring injustice, however powerful the perpetrators.

Courtesy of Astra Books
Candy J. Cooper's 'Shackled' looks at the history of Luzerne County's 'Kids for Cash' scandal through interviews and detailed analysis of official documents and news coverage.

“I also wanted to inspire this idea that one needs to speak up when one sees wrongdoing, wherever you are in life,” Cooper said. “And if not, this can be what happens.”

Disgraced Luzerne County judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan ended up in federal prison for their roles in the scheme.

During the 2000s, the powerful jurists were secretly being paid by co-conspirators who built and ran for-profit juvenile detention centers, called Pennsylvania Child Care. “Zero-tolerance” judge Ciavarella was funneling minors to the centers, often for the most minor of infractions and without legal representation.

For many, those traumatic early brushes with the law led to lives marred by mental health struggles, addiction, further legal troubles – and in some cases, early deaths through suicide or overdoses.

“I think the stigma and the shame that these kids felt and that their families felt is carried around with them,” said Cooper, whose work was drawn from interviews with over a dozen survivors, as well as a detailed review of official records and local news reports.

“I mean, how can an 11, 12,13- or 14-year-old shake that off and say, ‘Well, that has nothing to do with me, this is about, you know, criminal judges?’ That isn't how children think,” she said.

“They think that it's their fault.”

‘A mass act of complicity’

One of those youths was Carisa Tomkiel, who was 14 in 2005 when Ciavarella sentenced her and a friend to a wilderness boot camp after they were brought before him for scrawling jokes on a few street signs in West Pittston. She spoke with Cooper for the book.

“Carisa was very, very reluctant when I found her several years ago. And we had a long exchange on social media where she was very suspicious. ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this?’ Really great questions,” Cooper said, noting that Tomkiel is still struggling with the traumas caused by her incarceration.

“I mean, I would have been very suspicious as well. But I think the moment was right, the timing was right, and she was ready to look at it.”

Amid an epidemic of graffiti in the borough, Tomkiel and a friend were charged with 86 counts of vandalism and institutional vandalism after a classmate caught in the act of tagging blamed all of the graffiti around town on the girls, whom Cooper describes as a “low-key duo who had little clout at school.”

Their appearance before Ciavarella “played out like a kangaroo court,” Cooper writes: An adult witness was unable to identify the girls, remaining statements were deemed hearsay, and the judge seemed “highly distracted” by discussions about football he was having with court officers.

It didn’t matter.

“In the next breath, he imposed their sentence: an indefinite stay at a wilderness camp that relied on extreme discipline and boot camp-like drills,” Cooper wrote. “With those words, the girls heard a rattling sound from a corner of the courtroom. Soon a court worker appeared holding two medieval-looking sets of shackles.”

It was, Cooper wrote, as if the girls “were murderers, not sign scribblers.”

“And yet, no matter how unfitting or incorrect the judge’s banter, how degrading the remarks, how senseless the rulings, a gaping silence hung over the courtroom, a strange indifference, a mass act of complicity seized the many dozens of professional adults who milled about in the business-as-usual atmosphere akin to a bustling marketplace,” Cooper wrote.

"These silent witnesses included probation and police officers, social workers, court reporters and the judge’s administrative staff,” she continued. “Also present were members of the Pennsylvania bar, including assistant district attorneys, public defenders and local private defense attorneys – all sworn to uphold laws that protect children and youth and report infractions that might harm them.”

The girls’ story repeated itself day after day for more than five years, even as parents and families, like Tomkiel’s mother, cried out in protest – Ciavarella threatened to jail her when she shouted that he was “corrupt” and “crooked” as her daughter was led away in shackles.

Cooper describes other cases, such as when Ciavarella told one girl to count the buttons on her blouse, and told another to count the pigeons out on a windowsill. When they did as instructed, the judge informed them that the number they spoke out loud would be the number of months for which they would be detained.

“Why did professionals watch and say nothing?” Cooper asks.

Even worse, she adds, school administrators and police took an active role in steering juveniles into the system, embracing Ciavarella’s approach as needed in the wake of the deadly 1999 Columbine school shootings in Colorado. He was invited to speak to local students, and school groups were sometimes brought to his courtroom to see Ciavarella's draconian process in action.

‘Sense of resignation’

Far from indicting a community, as the book’s subtitle might suggest, Cooper looks to explain the factors which allowed Ciavarella and Conahan to wield significant power for years and do so much damage to so many youths and their families.

It’s an old theme that may make some locals bristle, but Cooper puts forward the case that the region’s coal mining history set the stage for an environment where such an abuse of power could go unchecked for so long.

“[T]he more research I did for ‘Shackled,’ the more I saw what I have seen before: That the history of a place defines the place,” she wrote. “The culture and dynamics of coal mining had found its way into a courthouse in Luzerne County.”

That culture, she writes, was shaped by decades of bribery, mismanagement by senior officials, environmental degradation, intimidation of potential whistleblowers, the influence of organized crime – all of the above undermining the gains won by unions -- and how ordinary citizens put up with the abuses because they feared the repercussions of speaking out.

In making her case, Cooper treads ground that will be familiar to many here. She surveys the historical landscape from the brutal labor battles of the 19th and early 20th centuries to the 1959 Knox Mine disaster in Port Griffith. On a winter day, illegal mining practices designed to maximize corporate profits caused the Susquehanna River to flood into a tunnel, killing 12 men and ultimately dooming the industry in the Wyoming Valley.

The general themes are familiar to Cooper from her previous work, which includes the 2020 book “Poisoned Water: How the Citizens of Flint, Michigan, Fought for Their Lives and Warned the Nation.”

Yet she also saw some key differences between Flint, an industrial town whose fortunes rose and fell with the auto industry, and Luzerne County.

In Flint, she said, “there was such a resounding coming together” in the wake of the tainted water crisis with organized citizens showing themselves as “a force to be reckoned with” as they pressured public officials, including their state’s governor, for answers.

In Luzerne County, by contrast, she saw a “sense of resignation or powerlessness that seemed to play into this lack of standing up and speaking out.”

It was someone with local ties who led Cooper to the story.

Her editor, Susan Dobinick, grew up in Luzerne County and recommended Cooper watch “Kids for Cash,” a 2013 documentary about the scandal by director Robert May. Dobinick was a local high school student at the time and even knew some of the youths who went before Ciavarella.

“It was shocking,” she said of the film. “And it was utterly aligned with the kind of work that I do.”

Cooper formerly was an investigative reporter for the Detroit Free Press and San Francisco Examiner and was a 1991 Pulitzer Prize finalist for probing the Oakland, California police department’s failure to investigate sexual assault charges.

Council discussed the county prison's health care contract April 25 at the Luzerne County Courthouse.
The Luzerne County Courthouse is seen in a file photo.

Some did speak out

In Luzerne County, Cooper learned that those who did attempt to speak out against Ciavarella and Conahan faced threats from the powerful judges and their enablers, or found their cries mostly fell on deaf ears.

Among them was former Luzerne County Controller Steve Flood, whose questions about a $58 million contract with Pennsylvania Child Care led the judges to call him “bombastic” and “a loose cannon,” Cooper wrote, and they “once tried to jail him for his whistleblowing.”

Another: “Fair-minded and caring” Judge Chester Muroski, longtime family court judge who found himself demoted by then-President Judge Conahan after writing a letter to the county commissioners raising questions about how much money juvenile court was spending on incarcerating youths.

After a trip to Florida, where the judges had purchased a luxury condo, “Muroski suspected wrongdoing,” Cooper wrote, asking how they “could afford all this on a judge’s salary.”

As Cooper explains, Muroski was quietly undeterred. He and another target of the judges’ retaliation, county judge Ann Lokuta, would later take their suspicions to the FBI, which ultimately led to the federal investigations and arrests at a time when state judicial agencies seemed unable or unwilling to probe detailed complaints about Conahan and Ciavarella.

Complaints from parents also reached the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, where cofounder Marsha Levick was stunned to hear of a Mountain Top teen, Hillary Transue, who was sentenced to three months’ detention after creating a phony Myspace page to spoof a school administrator. Levick and center officials similarly took their complaints to the state courts, though that process initially went unheard in Harrisburg.

Others, including social worker and addiction counselor Mary Pat Melvin, shared their concerns with local newspaper reporters, who were methodically tracking Ciavarella’s pattern of incarcerating kids as well as the two judges’ financial connections to Pennsylvania Child Care.

“A former newspaper reporter myself, I can’t help but point to the body of work produced by these reporters as a case study in local news reporting protecting democracy – at a time when America’s local news system is collapsing,” Cooper wrote.

Unraveling mysteries

The federal investigation didn’t just bring down Ciavarella and Conahan.

Attorney Robert Powell, who created Pennsylvania Child Care, served 18 months in federal prison for his role. Developer Robert Mericle, who provided the judges with a million dollar “finder’s fee” for bringing him the project, served one year in federal prison.

On the other side of the case, a special master appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Judge Arthur Grim, recommended that the court expunge the records of at least 2,400 young people who had appeared before Ciavarella between 2004 and 2008.

“Grim documented that Ciavarella had jailed juveniles on minor charges, failed to fully inform them of their rights and pressured or overruled probation officers in order to lock up kids,” Cooper wrote.

A special state commission in 2010 released a report that was critical of two district attorneys and the county’s chief public defender for their silence and made a series of recommendations that were mostly implemented, from training and procedural safeguards to easier expungement of juvenile records.

And, Cooper noted, now “no child is shackled, unless a danger to himself or others.”

As for the judges, Conahan eventually pleaded guilty to racketeering, and was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison.

Ciavarella took his case to trial and was convicted of 12 out of 39 felonies. He remains in federal prison with a scheduled release date of 2034, when he will be 84.

Cooper said she reached out to the judges’ lawyers seeking comment for the book, and they declined.

What would she have asked them?

She wonders why the two took their defense in different directions, one pleading guilty and one going to trial. And she wonders whether Ciavarella still sees himself as an advocate for children who was looking out for their best interests, as he often portrayed himself.

Ciavarella frequently maintained that he never took “cash for kids,” as popularly alleged, stressing that the financial crimes he was convicted of do not amount to a quid pro quo.

Cooper dismissed that notion.

“That's semantics, really, because he was very closely following the (dentention center) census,” she said. “He knew how many children he’d sent there. He knew the profits that were being made there, and he wanted a piece of that.”

“So while it may not have been that he was selling children off of the shelf, and putting his hand out to be paid for it, it was indirectly, completely a quid pro,” she said.

It was Ciavarella’s courtroom demeanor that leaves Cooper with the most troubling questions – such as his casual football banter contrasted with thundered insults and random cruelty, like passing sentences based on the number of buttons on a teen’s shirt.

“When I read the verbatim passages from the courtroom, I see someone who is sadistic, cruel and unfeeling, and unable really to connect with the people in front of him,” Cooper said.

“I don’t know what you call it, but there’s something wrong there.”

Readers can learn more about ‘Shackled’ here.

Roger DuPuis joins WVIA News from the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. His 24 years of experience in journalism, as both a reporter and editor, included several years at The Scranton Times-Tribune. His beat assignments have ranged from breaking news, local government and politics, to business, healthcare, and transportation. He has a lifelong interest in urban transit, particularly light rail, and authored a book about Philadelphia's trolley system.

You can email Roger at rogerdupuis@wvia.org