In 2007, a frantic call from an alarmed parent prompted Juvenile Law Center to investigate irregularities in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County juvenile court. We discovered that hundreds of children routinely appeared before Judge Mark Ciavarella without counsel, were quickly adjudicated delinquent (found guilty) for minor offenses and immediately transferred to out-of-home placements. We petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2008 to vacate the juveniles’ adjudications of delinquency and expunge their records.
Though the court denied our initial petition, once the United States Attorney alleged that Ciavarella and another Luzerne County judge had accepted nearly $2.6 million in alleged kickbacks from two private for-profit juvenile facilities, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted our request for extraordinary relief. The US Attorney also filed federal criminal charges against both judges.
The scope of the violations of the children’s rights in Luzerne County turned out to be more egregious than anyone could have imagined. From 2003 to 2008, the Luzerne County judicial corruption scandal altered the lives of more than 2500 children and involved more than 6000 cases. Over 50 percent of the children who appeared before Ciavarella lacked legal representation; 60 percent of these children were removed from their homes. Many of them were sent to one or both of the two facilities at the center of the corruption scandal. Believed to be the largest judicial corruption scandal in our history,the story was featured in a 2009 episode of ABC’s “20/20.”
For their involvement in the “kids-for-cash” scandal, Judge Michael Conahan, the facilities’ former co- owner Robert Powell, and the developer Robert Mericle pled guilty to federal criminal charges; Judge Mark Ciavarella was found guilty of various federal crimes following his trial in 2011. In 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated the adjudications of all youth who appeared before Ciavarella between 2003-2008, dismissed their cases with prejudice and ordered all of their records expunged.
In addition to the federal criminal prosecutions and the proceedings before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, we partnered with pro bono co-counsel Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller to file a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of the children and parents who suffered emotional trauma and financial loss as a consequence of the corruption scheme. The suit seeks monetary damages from the former judges, private facilities, the former co-owner of the facilities and the developer. The suit makes claims under federal civil rights laws and the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. We remain dedicated to improving Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system and preventing the recurrence of such widespread violations of children’s rights in the future.
In October 2012, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist William Ecenbarger published a book on the "kids-for-cash" scandal, Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a $2.8 Million Kickback Scheme. Find out more and purchase this book here.
Last updated February 2012
Number of youth adjudicated delinquent by ex-judge Mark Ciavarella in the "kids-for-cash" scandal whose records were expunged by Special Master Judge Grim: 2,251
Rate that Ciavarella sent kids who appeared in his court to detention: 26%. Statewide rate: 8-10%.
Ciavarella and Conahan were found guilty of $2.6 million in tax evasion and fraud.