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A corrupt judge, a damaged life

Teen and his family still paying after Luzerne County sentencing.

Joanne and Charlie Balasavage. Charlie was sentenced to three years in a detention center by a judge receiving kickbacks from the center. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)
Joanne and Charlie Balasavage. Charlie was sentenced to three years in a detention center by a judge receiving kickbacks from the center. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)Read more

As Joanne Balasavage sat with her 16-year-old son, Charlie, outside the Luzerne County juvenile courtroom of Judge Mark A. Ciavarella, she noticed a troubling trend.

Only parents emerged from the courtroom, no children. They could hear shackles jangle across the floor that day in January 2007 as one after another, juvenile defendants were taken away.

Then came Charlie's turn. A heavyset boy with a wide face and glasses, he had never been in trouble before buying from a relative a scooter that turned out to have been stolen. Without a lawyer representing him, Charlie was quickly dispatched by the judge on a three-year odyssey through the state's juvenile-detention system. He's still in custody.

In what authorities are calling one of the worst judicial scandals in Pennsylvania history, Ciavarella and another Luzerne County judge, Michael T. Conahan, pleaded guilty last month to sentencing youths - Charlie among them - to secure detention facilities from which they received $2.6 million in kickbacks.

After their guilty pleas, the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of 70 families, including the Balasavages, alleging that Ciavarella and Conahan violated the rights of young offenders in ways that went beyond the kickback scheme.

In "a wave of unprecedented lawlessness," the suit says, the judges failed to advise Charlie and other youths of their right to counsel, accepted their guilty pleas without explaining what they had been charged with, and garnisheed the wages of their parents to pay the costs of detention.

Two other suits have also been filed in the matter.

For Charlie, the nightmare continues. Nearly three years after his ordeal began, and despite little evidence he committed a crime, Charlie remains in a juvenile center, according to court records and interviews with his parents and his attorneys.

The Juvenile Law Center estimates that between 2003 and 2008, as many as 2,500 Luzerne County juveniles may have been affected by Ciavarella's rulings. In a two-year window examined by the Juvenile Law Center, more than half of those defendants had no attorney.

Many, like Charlie, were never told they had admitted to crimes that resulted in harsh sentences, their attorneys say. Some, like Charlie, were sent to one of the two detention centers for which the judges had helped secure more than $30 million in county contracts.

Today, almost all the juveniles are free. Some are still on probation. As many as 30 others are still locked away.

Luzerne County District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll said that her office had reviewed those 30 cases and that all had had at least one hearing before Judge David Lupas, who replaced Ciavarella, although some of those reviews took place before Ciavarella and Conahan pleaded guilty. The judges have agreed to spend 87 months in federal prison.

"We're doing our best to make sure all the cases are addressed," Carroll said.

Almost all of the families, many of them struggling financially, were forced to pay the bills for the detention centers, no matter where in the state their children were sent. In some cases the county garnisheed their meager wages.

When Charles Balasavage, Charlie's father, could not keep up with $110 biweekly payments for his son's incarceration on his janitor's salary, the courts threatened to send him to jail, he recalled.

"They're still taking it out of my check," he said in an interview, the first in which he and his wife described the family's ordeal.

As of now, the Balasavages owe $1,200.

Meanwhile, the judges lived lavishly, vacationing at a Florida condominium and enjoying a boat slip rented with kickbacks they have admitted taking.

In their wake, they left crumbled lives and shredded families.

This week, Berks County Senior Judge Arthur E. Grim, appointed by the state Supreme Court, is sorting through mountains of files to determine what happened in each case.

Grim, who said he had seen nothing approaching the case in his career, is expected to begin ruling in the coming weeks. Many convictions are sure to be thrown out and the juvenile records expunged.

But erasing the records of children such as Charlie can't repair the damage his parents say he suffered in a system they feel exploited him to enrich Ciavarella and his cronies.

Once Charlie was placed in the detention system, his anxiety became far worse.

"The thing I can't get out of my head is when they shackled me in front of my mother," he said during an interview with his parents at their tidy twin in Wilkes-Barre. He was on leave from a court-ordered treatment program in Lancaster.

When Ciavarella first sent him away, for six months, Charlie was chained in a waist belt, leg shackles, and handcuffs and carted off before he could offer his side of the story, he and his parents said.

According to state guidelines, the recommended sentence for an adult convicted of the same offense is probation to one month in jail.

"I was like, 'What's going on here? What did I do?' " Charlie said.

Cherry-red scooter

Charlie first saw the bright-red GreenLine scooter in the summer of 2006. The 15-year-old, who had grown up working on cars with his father, liked it immediately.

His relative said he had gotten the minibike from an uncle. Seeing Charlie's interest, he offered to sell it for $60.

Charlie's mother, a nurse's aide, was out of work, and his father's salary as a janitor was stretched thin. Still, his parents relented.

"It was something we wanted to do for him," Joanne said. "He got a lot of happiness out of it."

Until the police showed up and asked Charlie if he had a scooter.

"I thought I was getting in trouble for riding the scooter without a helmet," he said.

The scooter had been stolen, the police told him. Charlie explained that he had bought it from a relative. They asked for a receipt.

When Charlie's parents arrived home that night, they explained the purchase. But the police arrested the three of them.

Later, they said, the police decided to charge only Charlie.

"I thought I would tell the judge what happened and it would be over," he said.


His court hearing was scheduled in January 2007. Charlie and his mom remained hopeful. But they vividly remember how they felt, the folding chairs in the hallway, the clank of shackles.

"He said, 'Mom, they're going to lock me up,' " Joanne Balasavage recalled. "I told Charlie, 'He'll listen to our story. We told the truth. We did what we're supposed to do.' "

When Charlie and his mother appeared before Ciavarella, they discovered Charlie was charged with a felony.

"That's when I started to panic," Joanne said.

Without explaining the charge or asking about guilt or innocence, Ciavarella adjudicated Charlie delinquent and placed him at the Youth Services Agency, commonly called Camp Adams.

"I did not understand why this was happening to me," Charlie said.

Joanne said she had barely had a minute to comfort her son. Charlie was taken to a holding cell so crowded with girls and boys that he had to stand against a wall.

On the first day at Camp Adams, Charlie met with a psychologist. After several hours of interviews, the psychologist said Charlie had an antisocial disorder, anxiety, depression, and a host of other maladies.

The Balasavages wanted Charlie to see another doctor, one covered by their medical insurance. But the county said no.

Charlie's parents and lawyers have discovered that the psychologist, Frank Vita, is Conahan's brother-in-law.

In November, the state said it would take back $836,636 it had paid Vita for such exams. But the Balasavages were charged $250 for the evaluation.

At Camp Adams, worry prevented Charlie from sleeping. Eventually, the camp doctor placed him on the mood stabilizer Seroquel, his parents said. Charlie said he had spoken to almost no one for three months.

From there, Charlie went to Clearbrook Lodge, a drug- and alcohol-treatment center in northeast Pennsylvania.

Charlie had experimented with marijuana and alcohol but did not have an ongoing dependency, his mother said. Still, the center began to address some of Charlie's issues, although it also convinced the boy he was an addict, his mother recalled.

At Clearbrook, Charlie excelled at school, according to records; many of the counselors asked why he was even there.

After three months, he returned to high school in Wilkes-Barre. He would need to start school again, the district said, because it would not accept his credits. The school superintendent did not return a call seeking comment.

Back in school, Charlie quickly became overwhelmed. His anxiety returned. His friends shunned him as a troublemaker.

Then in July 2007, Charlie's infant niece was killed in an automobile accident, and his sister was badly injured. Charlie began to drift downhill. Still on probation, he missed required appointments. He used drugs again, enough to register trace amounts in his urine.

He had to appear before Ciavarella again. This time the judge was even harsher.

He asked Charlie why he behaved this way. Charlie tried to explain his anxiety.

"You're a two-time loser, and you'll always be a loser," he said the judge had told him.

Over the next few years, Ciavarella placed Charlie in facility after facility, seven in all. His most recent stay is in the Manos Therapeutic Community in Lancaster.

After three years and seven juvenile centers, he said, he's finally in a facility that's teaching him how to handle his anxiety.

"I can't waste time being angry," he said. "I've lost too much already."