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'Kids for Cash' is about corrupt judges exchanging children's lives for money

On Feb. 27, 2014 New York movies Examiner Dorri Olds landed an exclusive interview with filmmaker Robert May. The topic was May's movie, "Kids for Cash," which tells the true story of two corrupt judges, Mark A. Ciavarella and Michael Conahan.

Judge Mark A. Chiavarella on the courthouse steps. Sandy Fonzo rages at him. When her son came home after years in a juvenile facility he killed himself.
Judge Mark A. Chiavarella on the courthouse steps. Sandy Fonzo rages at him. When her son came home after years in a juvenile facility he killed himself.
SenArt Films

Together the two judges sent 3,000 kids to a for-profit juvenile detention center in exchange for what they called "fees." The truth is it was a case of greed and extortion and benefiting from ruining the lives of children and their families. Some of the children killed themselves. The money they "earned" for punishing children was $2.8 million dollars.

The children, most of them in their early teens, were sent away for the “crimes” of fights with a classmate, a fake MySpace page, cursing, talking back, hair pulling, you name it. These kids were sent away for years. They lost their innocence and were robbed of normal childhoods.

The movie is filled with suspense and seems like a fictional thriller. Unfortunately it really happened.

Filmmaker Robert May said he had been working on another movie project when he stumbled onto his story. He tells the shocking details of what happened.

Dorri Olds: You were in Luzerne County when the story broke in 2009, correct?

Robert May: Yes, I was there working on another project, coincidentally about greed and power, but decided to put that aside. My producing partner wanted to get the real story. It’s hard to say why those two judges came forward to speak to us. Ciaverella seemed to need to explain that there was more to the story. Maybe because we were not sitting in judgment they felt they could speak to us.

Did you feel this story was unfolding like a thriller?

Oh yes. It was like a Charles Dickens tale about twists and turns and betrayal.

Did you ever feel any compassion or empathy for Judge Ciaverella?

It was important for me not to be judgmental. I approached all of the interviews the same way. They were in three-hour increments so we could get to the meat of the story during our conversations and they were great conversations. I certainly saw a vanity with the judge. I saw a failed human. I didn’t know what to expect at first but that’s the best way I can say it. I know that audiences have been split on how much empathy they have for both judges. Some do and some don’t. It was an incredible ride.

Do you think Judge Ciaverella believed in what he was doing or was he totally driven by greed?

I think that’s up for the audience to decide but the evidence points to him believing in what he was doing. He ran on a platform of zero tolerance before it was popular. He was reelected for a 10-year term. The police loved him. The school had him come speak to students every year. He had a long list of speaking engagements speaking at many schools and talked about his zero tolerance policy. The parents of any kid who was being arrested loved him. So I think he was boosted by his beliefs. And he was there before Columbine so I think he thought he was a man before his time. After Columbine he got even tougher. For him, he was thinking, ‘I’m doing the right thing. I think I am and everybody is telling me that I am.’ His own kids talk about how he was zero tolerant when they were growing up.

In Pennsylvania alone, after Columbine, school-based arrests increased by 300 percent, which is pretty incredible. After Columbine the school violence was going down and student arrests were going up all around the country.

Do you think that this type of thing happened in other states but judges weren’t caught?

We’ve screened the movie all around the country and asked moviegoers and we’re told that the kind of situations that have happened are depicted in the film. We screened the film in Washington and there was a judge who pulled me aside and he said, “I just want to let you know that I’ve done everything that has been depicted in this movie but of course I’ve never taken any money.” I think he felt that he needed to say that to somebody. I understood what he was saying because we screened it to a lot of judges around the country and you could tell that they were emotional, perhaps because they were tougher on kids than maybe they ought to have been but certainly taking money makes it completely different.

"Kids for Cash" opened Feb. 28, 2014 in select theaters. To learn more visit the website:

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