BY DAVID KLEPPER
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Nicholas Alahverdian was a 15-year-old foster child when he was sent from Rhode Island to live in facilities for troubled young people, first in Nebraska and later in Florida. According to lawsuits he filed, he was subjected to regular physical and emotional abuse.
Now 24, Alahverdian blames officials in Rhode Island for moving him hundreds of miles from his home, school and friends. The state is failing its foster children when it places them far from its oversight, he said.
“It’s an inhumane approach to a human problem,” Alahverdian told The Associated Press. “These are the most vulnerable people in Rhode Island. We have the ability to provide for them here. And we’re spending all this money to ship them across the country.”
Each year, Rhode Island sends dozens of children to facilities elsewhere, at a cost to taxpayers that has averaged $14 million over the past decade, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through an open-records request. In fiscal year 2010, for instance, 117 foster children were placed out of state, most in neighboring Massachusetts but some in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
Rhode Island plans to spend $88 million this year on foster care programs.
Officials at the Department of Children, Youth and Families said Rhode Island has made great strides in reducing the number of children sent out of state. As of Aug. 1, there were 1,700 children in state custody. Fifty-four are in out-of-state facilities. That’s down sharply from just a few years ago, when more than 200 children were sent out of state. In fiscal year 2008, for instance, the state spent $19.8 million housing 231 children in 13 states.
In several cases, children were sent to facilities with troubling records of employee misconduct, abuse and even death.
The Stonington Institute in Connecticut came under fire in 2008 after teen boys were forcibly injected with medications designed to restrain them. In 2006, Connecticut officials temporarily halted new admissions at the facility after inspectors reported insufficient staffing and poor employee training. Yet Rhode Island sent children to the facility from 2007 to 2010.
Officials in Virginia this year temporarily halted admissions at the Pines Residential Treatment Center’s two facilities after reporting “significant problems” over several years, including the mishandling of a sexual abuse complaint. North Carolina removed many of its children from the Pines after a parent reported that their child had been sexually abused by two other residents. Rhode Island sent children to the Pines facilities in five of the past 10 years.
Two Texas facilities that have received Rhode Island children were part of a chain of treatment centers criticized for the deaths of five residents since 1988. In each case the children died after being restrained. In 2003, Texas investigators determined that a 17-year-old boy who asphyxiated at one of the company’s wilderness camps in 2002 after being restrained. The company later sold the facilities. Rhode Island sent children to the facilities from 2002-2005.
The officials who oversee Rhode Island’s foster care system said they only send children to facilities in other states as a last resort, when a child’s physical or mental health needs require treatment no facility within the state can provide.
“I would love to say that we would never need to rely on out-of-state placement,” said Kevin Aucoin, acting director of the Department of Children, Youth and Families. “But I don’t think that’s realistic. There are children who come into our care with highly specialized treatment needs and we need to go outside the state to identify the programs best suited for them.”
Alahverdian said welfare officials told him he was being sent to out-of-state facilities because he suffered from bipolar disorder, which he denies. He believes he was sent to facilities in Nebraska and Florida because he spoke to state lawmakers about problems he experienced with the foster care system. When he was at those facilities, he said he rarely heard from the state officials charged with his well-being. Aucoin said caseworkers are required to visit Rhode Island children in out-of-state care at least every six months.
Aucoin noted that the overall number of children sent to institutions in other states – and the resulting cost to taxpayers – declined sharply in 2009 and 2010. And when children are placed elsewhere, Aucoin said most of them are sent to facilities in nearby Massachusetts.
Some lawmakers want to go further and prohibit the state from sending foster children out of the state at all. Rep. Roberto DaSilva, D-East Providence, introduced legislation this year that would bar the practice unless authorities can show it’s not possible to keep the child in Rhode Island. He proposed the legislation after meeting with Alahverdian.
“The amount of money we’re spending here is huge,” DaSilva said. “There are facilities here in Rhode Island that could provide these services. And who does the oversight on these out-of-state facilities? Are they being watched as closely as the ones right here?”
DaSilva’s bill didn’t get a vote, but he plans to try again next year.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said it’s common for states to use out-of-state facilities for foster care. His group issued a report last year that labeled Rhode Island’s foster care system one of the worst. Rhode Island officials remove children at almost double the average rate in other states, the report calculated.
“The root of the problem is that Rhode Island takes away too many kids in the first place,” he said. “The system is overloaded at every step, so the state feels it has no choice but to send these kids out of state. I believe that creates a second trauma for these kids who have already been removed from their families.”
Aucoin doesn’t disagree. He said DCYF is a few years into an effort to reduce the total number of children in state care. In 2007, there were more than 2,500 children in the state’s foster care system. This year there are 1,700.
“There was a culture shift in the agency to focus on community based interventions, family based interventions with the goal of decreasing the number of children coming into DCYF care,” Aucoin said. “It’s better for the child, and better for the family.”
Alahverdian said more must be done. He was placed in state custody because his parents struggled with alcoholism and were abusive, he said. He remained in state custody until he was nearly 18. This year he worked as a lobbyist at the Statehouse, trying to convince lawmakers to reform the state’s foster care system. He’s taking college courses and is considering law school, or a career as an advocate for children in the foster care system.
“A big part of me wants to solve this problem,” he said. “But I don’t know if Rhode Island wants to solve this problem.”