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Civil hearings for ‘Kids for Cash’ scandal begin

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WILKES-BARRE, LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) — The infamous “Kids for Cash” case is the focus of a hearing in Federal Court on Monday. Victims of two now-convicted former Luzerne County Judges are seeking financial damages.

A federal judge in Wilkes-Barre will hear testimony on Monday in a long-awaited civil hearing against former Luzerne County judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan.

Federal prosecutors say hundreds of juveniles were sent away for minor offenses as part of a kickback scheme involving Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan. They were convicted of accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for sending juveniles to private juvenile detention centers.

“He doesn’t have my sympathy or anybody else. I don’t anyone to give him any sympathy at all,” Mark Aguilar, a Cash for Kids victim said of Ciavarella.

Aguilar was 17 years old when he was sent away by Ciavarella for several years. Most of that time was on minor drug charges.

“As a kid I relied on drugs and alcohol to just deal with what I was going through. I couldn’t talk to nobody about it.. about what I was going through personally inside mentally,” Aguilar said.

Ciavarella was convicted of numerous counts in 2011 connected to the alleged scheme. He was convicted on 12 of 39 counts for funneling juveniles into detention centers in which he had a financial interest. Ciavarella argued many of the charges he was convicted of should not have been filed because the statute of limitations had expired. 

Conahan pleaded guilty in the case and was serving a 17-and-a-half year sentence in federal prison.

The now 68-year-old Conahan was released in June of this year because of COVID-19 health-related concerns.

Ciavarella, now 70, also petitioned for an early release in September, but a federal judge denied the request. Ciavarella remains locked up in a federal facility in Kentucky.

You can read Ciavarella’s petition for release here

The former judges have waived their right to take part in this hearing.

Eyewitness News is told hundreds of victims, who are now adults, will be testifying on how the scandal changed their lives. Several victims testified Monday morning saying the “Kids for Cash” changed their lives forever and they are still trying to recover from it.

Kids for Cash victim Robert Avery was 15 when he was sent away for three months for a crime he says he did not commit.

“You stripped me of 15 years of my life. I took up a drug addiction to cope with everything he put me through. The emotional stress, the trauma, it was the worst experience of my life, still dealing with it today,” Avery said.

Nick Barbose was also sent away by Ciaverella when he was 15.

“Not too many people know how to deal with the fact that a judge sold them off for a paycheck. It’s not an everyday occurrence. How do you deal with something like that?” Barbose said.

There were lots of tears from other victims who were inside the courtroom listening to the testimony.

“That I was never going to leave here. Not much else. That I’m never leaving here. I’m going to die here,” Kids for Cash victim Ashley Acri said.

Acri fought back tears as she told a federal judge that she could not believe she was being sent away by Ciavarella for allegedly resisting arrest. She was 16 years old. She still deals with depression and anxiety but she says Ciavarella could not break her, could not break her spirit.

“I forgive him. I do I forgive him. There’s other kids that had bigger problems than I did. I want you to know I graduated college and I forgive you,” Acri said.

Lindsay Marie Belle was sent away to juvenile detention for three months because she skipped school.

“We should never have went through this, we should never have been locked up, thrown in like cats and dogs in and out of a courtroom. Locked in chains at 14 years old. It should never have went down like that,” Belle said.

Judy Lorah Fisher was there to support all of the victims and their families. Her niece, Amanda, was sent away by Ciavarella for five years and will testify at this hearing.

“I’m here today for all the other children and all the other families that are victims of the kids for cash. I think it’s important to show support for each other,” Lorah Fisher said.

The hearing is expected to last about two to three weeks.

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