Awaiting judgment on ‘Kids for Cash,’ the movie

June 18th, 2015 7:25 pm

First Posted: 2/6/2014

WILKES-BARRE — In one sense, it’s all over but the screenings.

Half a decade of research, reporting, interviewing, editing and intense confidentiality came home to Luzerne County on Thursday night, as “Kids for Cash,” a 102-minute non-fiction film about the county’s judicial scandal, held its official local premiere at Movies 14 in downtown Wilkes-Barre.

The principal players were there: director and Dallas resident Robert May, juveniles and their families who took part in the film, together with area media types who also appear on screen and scores of others associated with the production, including many from Wilkes University, where May worked out of a little-known editing suite set up for his use.

Of course, those people all have seen the film before, either in its entirety at private screenings or as rough cuts during the production process.

Now it remains to be seen what the general public will think, once “Kids for Cash” opens to Northeastern Pennsylvania audiences today at Movies 14 and at Cinemark in Moosic.

“In Wilkes-Barre, I hope a lot of people come to see it,” said Laurene Transue, whose daughter Hillary was just 15 in 2007 when she was shackled and sent off to juvenile detention by Luzerne County Juvenile Court Judge Mark Ciavarella for the crime of mocking a school official on the social networking site MySpace.

“The producers have done an excellent job of showing all sides,” she said.

The movie includes interviews with disgraced former county Judge Mark Ciavarella and fellow fallen jurist Michael T. Conahan as their legal cases were proceeding through federal court.

In 2009 federal prosecutors charged Ciavarella and Conahan with participating in a $2.8 million kickback scheme related to the construction of the PA Child Care facility in Pittston Township and the Western PA Child Care Center in Butler County and the placement of youths in the facilities.

Conahan ultimately pleaded guilty to a charge of racketeering conspiracy and was sentenced to 17 1/2 years in prison. Ciavarella received a sentence of 28 years in prison for his involvement in the financial scandal. He steadfastly maintains he never took cash for kids, however.

Those interviews were a closely guarded secret during the film-making process, and have come as a shock to some audiences as the film premiered at selected venues before arriving here. Not least of all, the judges’ flickering images came as a surprise to juveniles and their families when they first saw the film in private screenings.

“Angry. I was angry,” Laurene Transue recalled. “I felt he had had a chance to speak out before, while our children didn’t have a chance to speak. He had all those years to speak in the courtroom.”

Thursday night was to be her fourth time seeing the film, and she admitted coming to the realization that a story about victims needed to be balanced by the voices of those who had played the part of villains.

Hillary Transue, now 22, was more than angry when she first saw the man who locked her up defending his actions and crying on a movie screen.

“It came as a huge shock. I was appalled. I felt betrayed,” she said, with particular ire toward May, the filmmaker who had earned her trust.

“I just thought, ‘How dare you associate with this man, this monster?’ ” she said.

May has previously explained his view that getting the judges to speak during the process was essential to the film, and required confidentiality. The pair said they did not tell their lawyers about participating, May has said.

As with her mother, Hillary Transue’s shock has subsided and her views transformed as she considers the final product, and its potential impact on audiences.

“This film is very important to me,” she said. “I believe everyone who was involved in this film has been changed by it.”

Developing some perspective on Ciavarella’s remarks to the camera also helped.

“I think, after I settled down, and I really watched the movie, I realized this man made a complete fool of himself,” she said of the fallen judge.

Hillary Transue is now a student in Wilkes University’s graduate creative writing program, where she was awarded a graduate assistantship. She wants to become a high school teacher, and hopes to be able to work with at-risk youth.

She admits that, as painful as her ordeal was, she would do it all over again with the knowledge that it helped bring down the corrupt judges and bring some measure of justice to 3,000 youths and their families affected by Ciavarella’s rigidity.

Shocked and outraged by the severity of Ciavarella’s sentence for their daughter, the Transues contacted the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, a step which ultimately played a large role in unraveling the web of injustice that was festering under the courthouse dome.

“I think we need to look at the fact that the money was a very important factor” Laurene Transue said of Ciavarella and Conahan’s tainted financial dealings, “but Hillary and I and the Juvenile Law Center started this before there was any mention of any money.”

“For us, the heart of the issue is ‘zero tolerance,’ ” Laurene Transue said.

She hopes ordinary people will come away thinking more critically, not just about juvenile justice, but also about how they vote.

“I didn’t live here at the time, but I probably would have voted for him before all this,” she said of Ciavarella.