December 1, 2019
By Nicholas Alahverdian
As I’ve grown older, my Christmases have become progressively better. Usually it’s the other way around. People tend to experience that magical feeling next to a tree decorated with glittery, beautiful ornaments best when they are young. But when one grows up in foster care, it’s a nightmare.
I was a foster kid. Some would say orphan. Others would say “ward of the state.” It was a horrible situation, especially for me, because I would end up dealing with even worse abuse than most other foster kids because I reported the abusive practices of what was going on in the state social service system to my legislators and other state officials. But we shall save that story for another time.
Christmas was especially difficult in 2002. I remember it like it was yesterday.
At the beginning of 2002, I was 14 years old and things were going relatively smoothly in my life. Then, in April, I spoke at a city council hearing in my hometown and all hell broke loose. Apparently speaking your mind to over 900 angry taxpayers is just what it takes to get you in the newspaper. These 900 people were (justifiably) angry at the fact that our city was going bankrupt. But, I pointed out, it wasn’t the current Mayor’s fault. He had only been in office, I think, for about a year and it was his first budget.
When I explained that there ought to be a sense of reflection on the past administrations that may have contributed to this deficit, all hell broke loose. God forbid you insult a republican predecessor. You horrible, disgusting, know-nothing 14 year old kid.
After that night, my life changed forever. The next day, I was on the cover of New England’s second largest daily newspaper, The Providence Journal. The Journal was second to only The Boston Globe. And in 2002, being in the newspaper was a big deal. Kids today would call it going viral perhaps. The Journal, back then, had a circulation of around 100,000 or maybe even more.
I started getting calls from all sorts of random people. In my state, which at that time, as it is now, was controlled by Democratic Party, there was call after call from union boss and state representative and state senator. Everyone wanted to tell me how brave I was and how amazing it is for young people to be involved in the political process. One memorable card was from AFL-CIO president George Nee, who congratulated me on standing up to an angry mob that would threaten the jobs of so many.
Another surprise came the next day. The Attorney General, Sheldon Whitehouse, sent me a handwritten note on beautiful cardstock paper. I remember reading his very kind note, looking with interest at the curiously bespoke font that oozed with power. I remember rubbing my thumb over the embossed golden anchor, our state seal, on its blue shield. It was, as my 14-year-old self would probably describe, “pretty cool.”
My state representative, Bea Lanzi, came to our home and told me how proud she was that someone from her district was standing up for what was right. She later helped me get a job at the State House, first as her page, and then I was promoted to a Legislative Aide.
In May, Lanzi invited me to the House of Representatives chamber as a guest, and amidst the hustle and bustle of the legislative session, other legislators stopped what they were doing and glanced over at the boy who stood up and was booed by 900 people. I was still unsure of what all the fuss was about, but let me tell you, when I saw the political system in motion, I was hooked.
I could care less about whatever citation or notice from powerful people I was getting. I was more interested in the pieces of paper flying around, and the pages in their blue blazers running up and down the marble staircases juggling bills, cups of coffee, cans of soda, and whatever else the legislators needed. I stayed and explored some more. I sat in on committee meetings. I listened to people talk about the law, how it could be improved, and how working families and average people, hardworking people, deserved a fair shot at life.
I saw these committee meetings, and I closely listened to the testimony of experts, the follow-up questions of the legislators, and the answers that would play an important part in shaping the legislator’s attitude about the bill that was pending before them.
And so began, at the age of 14, my career in state government. But it wasn’t to last for long.
The legislative session ended in June, and my mother hard a nervous breakdown in October when my grandfather passed away. She was periodically unable to properly care for her three children before that, and we had been taken into care before in 2002, but I was determined to keep everything together. She began to abuse alcohol again, and it was impossible for me to live with her when she became erratic. She still loved us. I know she did. It just didn’t work out the way it should have, and I ended up being taken into foster care permanently.
At the time, there was something called the “night-to-night” program that was being used due to a lack of beds in group homes, shelters, and foster homes. In a nutshell, kids would spend the day at the social services building until around 9 or 10 pm with nothing more to do than read decade-old National Geographic or Sports Illustrated magazines. They would then be put in a van and taken to a shelter or a group home that had a couch or, if one was lucky enough, a bed to sleep on for the night. And then at 5 in the morning you would wake up to be taken back to the social services building to repeat the process. One was not permitted to attend school as one had no permanent address, thus barring registration at a public school. It was horrible, to say the least.
In November, I was in The Providence Journal once again, this time with a feature article about me by legendary Providence Journal columnist Bob Kerr. It talked about night-to-night, and it talked about the abuse I went through in the group homes and shelters. But no one knew that I was the same kid who, just six months earlier, had been celebrated as a “brave” and “courageous” young citizen who “stood up for what was right.”
Now I was just another burden on the state. I felt disgusted with myself.
But the practices in the foster care system such as night-to-night, as well as the lack of accountability that followed the abusive and negligent experiences in that program compelled me to do more. I began to speak to the media, and my story was widely covered. My honesty and unique way of telling the story that so many other foster kids didn’t have the chance to share was becoming a publicity threat. It made the governor, social services director, and family court chief judge look bad. Very bad.
But I had a plan.
In December, I traveled to New York City on a train with $20.00 to get me through the week. I remember getting off at Penn Station in my suit, the same one I would wear to the State House, and heading directly for the offices of NBC News, Fox News, The New York Times, and other news agencies to tell them about what was happening back in the corrupt foster care system in which I found myself being shuffled from home to home, night after night, without attending school or doing anything remotely useful in order to prepare myself for university.
Some of the news agencies picked up the story and arranged to have me on their programs or to write about my story in the first week of the new year. I was thrilled to meet the people that would be interviewing me. You know their names. They’ve been in the industry for decades.
I slept on the subway. I had a McChicken on Christmas evening for my dinner, and unceremoniously ate it in front of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. I had been in 30 Rock just days before meeting with producers to pitch my story. But I didn’t have the heart to tell them that my return ticket home wasn’t for another few days, and that I had nowhere to stay. For one brief moment though, in front of those shining, glistening lights, I promised that I would do what I needed to do to ensure the world knew of the conditions of foster care — where kids were starving, prohibited from attending school, and shuffled from group home sofa to group home sofa, night after night. That was my Christmas gift that year.
But it didn’t matter. Because my Christmas gift that year wouldn’t be opened until the first few weeks of 2003 when the abuse would be illuminated and changes would be made as a result of the outrage that these stories would inevitably cause.
Or so I thought.
When I returned home, there were more stories published and broadcast about me locally. That was enough to spark the already embarrassed family court chief judge and social services director to put me in a secure facility until they could send me far from home, to two group homes that had lengthy records of abuse and neglect. I wasn’t permitted to contact anyone — the media, my social worker, my family, or anyone who could help me.
I finally returned home in June 2005, and it took me many months to recover from the torture and abuse that I experienced. It was incredibly difficult to remember who I was, what I had accomplished, and where I wanted to go in life. In the group homes that I had been sent to, which were locked and from which I could contact no one, I was given large doses of medication which had essentially turned me into a zombie. I was beaten and raped, and the facilities were so bad, they were shut down.
I have since regained a part of myself. I’ll never have my childhood returned to me, but that goes without saying. I started to have flashbacks of what happened, and I began my advocacy once again. Now, thanks to greater transparency and internet leaks and investigative reporting, everything I said about the foster care system has been accepted as true. Changes are being made, albeit slowly and not without mistakes.
My only regret is that I didn’t fight harder 17 years ago.
The Christmas gift from 2002 will always remain unopened.
Nicholas Alahverdian, a Harvard-trained political scientist and sociologist, is the author of “Dreading and Hoping All,” released in October 2019. He can be visited on the web at https://www.nicholasalahverdian.com