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.”
As Nicholas Alahverdian and I talked, he took in the view of the Rhode Island State House from The Journal cafeteria.
“You don’t know how much I love going in that building,” he says.
Alahverdian loves the excitement of it, the reporters and the politicians. He’s been part of it. He’s worked for his state representative. He’s testified at hearings.
He wants to be a politician. And a lawyer. And a journalist.
Don’t bet against him hitting the career trifecta. He’s already been tested in ways few of us will ever know.
“I don’t think I’ve been harmed at all,” Nicholas Alahverdian says. “I think it’s all part of a plan that’s been assigned to me for upcoming events.”
He talks about the dark, uncertain part of his life as “boot camp.” It has taught him things and prepared him.
He’s 15, smart and articulate and almost painfully polite. He introduces himself with a handshake. He even said it was an honor to meet some of the people here at The Journal. He reads the newspaper. When he opens his backpack, a copy of David McCulloch’s biography of John Adams is the first thing he takes out.
He speaks from the other side of a lot of hard, cold statistics. He’s a kid caught in a cruel social shuffle that has left him with a heavy load of uncertainty when he desperately needs something solid and reliable.
His insistence on being all that he can be is remarkable.
After we talked Thursday afternoon, Nicholas Alahverdian headed for the bus stop and a ride to his latest group home in Providence.
At a time when he should have no concerns more pressing than homework and maybe the girl who sits two rows over in his Spanish class, he is forced to live his life in bits and pieces, never knowing how long he will be living or going to school in the same place.
There was a point in Nick’s nomadic life, when the Rhode Island social service system put him in a foster home in North Smithfield. It was probably the best experience he’s had, the closest he’s come to his ideal of home and family.
“I can’t tell you how loving this family was – how they accepted me into their home. They were so caring.”
He stayed there for two days. That’s all he was scheduled for. Then he went home to his real family for the Christmas holidays at the end of 1999.
Then he returned to a shelter in Woonsocket.
“It was decent for someone my age,” he says of the shelter. “There were caring people there. There were activities set up for us each night.”
As we talk, he sorts through a stack of notes he’s taken on his life so far. There are also copies of school grades and newspaper stories I wrote about his stepfather, a popular local performer.
It is amazing how matter-of-fact he is about it, as if every 15-year-old goes through this kind of jolting, disjointed life in which faceless people are making the calls on where he will live and where he will learn. He sorts through his papers, tells his stories and provides a stunning personal voice for all the stories about kids in Rhode Island who get moved around like pieces on a real-life board game.
He has been in night-to-night placement under the Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF). It is often little more than a couch to sleep on for the night, followed by a day of wondering where the next couch will be.
“It’s scary ridiculously scary,” he says. “There are punks in there, they took my sneakers, my clothing. I was threatened, assaulted. I saw kids hit each other with hockey sticks.
“You wake up in the morning at 5:30 and you go the DCYF building and wait to see where you’re going to go the next night.
“You’re not in school and I love school. You’re not associating with friends. You’re not treated decently. And how can your parents know where you are?”
In one sense, he knows it has to be this way. In another, he rails against the injustice of it and the self-defeating madness of dumping kids in often strange and frightening places.
The list of his stops on what seems a journey with no real destination is daunting. It winds through Coventry, Woonsocket, North Providence, Cranston, Providence, Narragansett and points in between.
Nicholas Alahverdian has been to a bunch of schools, some of which insulted his intelligence with course work and materials geared to children 5 or 6 years younger. He remembers being assigned the book The Pokey Little Puppy when it seemed like something from his distant past.
He once addressed the Cranston School Committee on how he felt he was being unfairly judged on his past in his classroom assignment.
Now, he is attending Hope High School where he’s on the debate team. He’s living in a group home in Providence which he considers one of the better ones he’s been in.
“It’s like a challenge at Hope,” he says, “a challenge to help yourself learn.”
And through it all, he remains this delightful survivor who seems to have held on to a real sense of who he is and what he wants to be, despite the efforts of the state of Rhode Island to keep him forever on the move.
There is a great temptation to listen to his story and thoroughly enjoy his company and then ask him something like “How the hell have you gotten through all this with so much hope and determination?”
We’ll hear from him somewhere down the road. He says all that training he received in his own personal “boot camp” has gotten him ready. It’s gotten him ready for war.
“It’s a war with people who are trying to destroy kids’ lives,” says my new friend Nick.