Child prisoners in Pennsylvania haunt the United States

In 2003, children started disappearing in Luzerne County, in northeastern Pennsylvania. By 2009, over 5000 had vanished, or more precisely had been disappeared. They were sold into juvenile prison system in what some call a kids-for-cash scam. On Friday, February 18, 2011, Judges Mark Ciaverella  and Michael Conahan pled guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud.

In a nutshell, the story is that two private juvenile prisons, PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care, paid the judges to send children to jail. Over 5000 children. In a five or six year period. In one county. Many were first time offenders. Many are today still in prison. In 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court voided almost all the juvenile convictions from 2003 on. Senior Judge Arthur Grim has the task of adjudicating the mess.

But what exactly is the mess? Ask the mothers of the children, ask the children themselves.

Erica Michaliga’s son damaged the hood of the family car. She called the police, to “put a good scare into him.” Once in, her son spent four years in prison. “Not only is this kids for cash, this is kids forgotten.”

Thirteen-year-old Alissa Conahan got into an argument with her grandmother. The family called the cops, to put a good scare into her. She spent most of four years, from the age of 14 to 18, in prison: “He ruined my life, so I don’t care what happens to him.”

At the age of 12, Eric Stefanski took his mother’s car and went on a quick joyride. No one was hurt. Eric ran over a barrier, smashing the undercarriage. In order to get insurance to pay for the damage, his mother, Linda Donovan, had to file a police report. She thought appearing before the judge might also “give him a little scare.” Eric Stefanski was shackled then and there, and spent the next two years in prison.

Edward Kenzakoski was 17 years old, a good kid with a bright future, a high school senior, a wrestler who was `expected to take state in his high school’. Edward looked forward to college scholarships based on his athletics, good record, and general life story. Edward started hanging out with `a different crowd, sneaking out at night.’ So, his mother called the police. She found out he was at an underage drinking party, and she asked the police to intervene, to help, “to put a little scare into him.” The police thought that’s what they were doing. Helping.

His mother, Sandy Fonzo, remembers and re-lives the rest: “Before we knew it, he was shackled, and he was taken. And I just remember his face looking at me. And it was just – it was horror. It was almost like—you know, he’s my kid, and I had just no control. They actually—at one time, while they had him in that juvenile center, he called me the next day. He’s in some place hours away. They needed a bed to fill for somebody else, so they moved him in the middle of the night, pouring down rain. I didn’t even know where my 17-year-old son was. I was having like a nervous breakdown. This whole thing has been nothing but a nightmare, and it just has never ended. It never ended. And now I live with this nightmare the rest of my life. And I just want him to at least pay for what he’s done. I mean, these people are to protect our kids. He was the adult here. He made these kids all think that they’re such bad kids. And, you know, it’s just terrible the way he beat them down. They’re not bad kids. I want them to know: it wasn’t them, it was him. They’re not bad. I want them to heal and go on with their lives so nothing happens to them like it did to my son.”

Edward committed suicide last June.

What runs through these stories? Efficiency. Child care.

According to Judge Grim, the average court proceeding for these children was “a minute and a half to three minutes.” It took that long to weigh the value of a child, of a child’s life. Judge Ciavarella was acting efficiently. Otherwise, how did this horror continue for six whole years?

Children make mistakes. In Luzerne County, families, mothers and grandmothers in particular, called on the police, called on the State, to put a scare into their kids. They called for help. In an economically devastated area, like that of Luzerne County, like that of Wilkes-Barre, that long ago lost its industrial, economic base, this is child care. There are few, if any, public services for children. There are few, if any, public services for families. The public juvenile detention centers have been closed and replaced with privately owned and operated ones, with names like PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care.

Five thousand children disappeared in a six year period, from 2003 to 2009, in a small place called Wilkes-Barre. Their mothers watched, helpless, as they were shackled and disappeared. Five thousand families suffered the disappearance of their children. The children haunt Pennsylvania. The mothers and grandmothers haunt Pennsylvania. The six years haunt Pennsylvania. Loss haunts Pennsylvania. The horror haunts Pennsylvania.

And Pennsylvania haunts the United States.

(Photo Credits: Kids For Cash) (Video Credit: Juvenile Law Center / YouTube)