Background Clofarabine has been shown to effectively induce remission in children with refractory leukemia. We conducted a prospective study to explore the use of clofarabine-based chemotherapy as a bridge-to-transplant approach. Methods Children with refractory acute leukemia were enrolled to receive two induction courses of clofarabine, etoposide, and cyclophosphamide (CloEC). Responding patients were scheduled for T-cell depleted haploidentical hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT). The primary objective was to improve survival by achieving sufficient disease control to enable stem cell transplantation. Secondary objectives were to evaluate safety and toxicity. Results Seven children with active disease entered the study. Two children responded to induction courses and underwent transplantation. Five children did not respond to induction: one died in progression after the first course; two received off-protocol chemotherapy and were transplanted; and two succumbed to progressive leukemia. All transplanted children engrafted and no acute skin graft-versus-host disease > grade I was observed. One child is alive and well 7.5 years after the first CloEC course. One child developed fulminant adenovirus hepatitis and died in continuous complete remission 7 months after start of induction. Two children relapsed and died 6.5 and 7.5 months after enrollment. Infection was the most common toxicity. Conclusions CloEC can induce responses in some patients with refractory acute leukemia but is highly immunosuppressive, resulting in substantial risk of life-threatening infections. In our study, haploidentical HSCT was feasible with sustained engraftment. No clinically significant organ toxicity was observed. Also, repeating CloEC probably does not increase the chance of achieving remission.