Nicholas Alahverdian: He knows the Rhode Island DCYF system inside and out

Nicholas Alahverdian, torture

Nicholas Alahverdian sat down with Bob Kerr of The Providence Journal in March 2010 to talk about how he was tortured and abused as an adolescent under the direction of Rhode Island state officials as a result of his political activism following his work as a legislative aide for the Rhode Island House of Representatives.

The question is: How does Nicholas Alahverdian, a smart kid from Rhode Island who wants desperately to go to school, end up instead in a place in Florida that features barbed wire, lockdowns and limited access to the outside world — all at a cost of $330 a day to the state he came from?

It might seem a crime would have to be involved, but there is no crime. There’s just a guy, now 23, who got caught up in Rhode Island’s child welfare system and ended up in places far from home where he couldn’t plead his case. The misery, Nicholas Alahverdian says, was compounded by beatings by other young residents of the deceptively named Manatee Palms Youth Services.

The story is one seldom heard, at least not as clearly and eloquently as Nicholas Alahverdian tells it. We hear little of those kids in state care who end up hundreds, even thousands of miles away in facilities that sometimes have complete control over their every move.

Nicholas Alahverdian is a friend of mine, and I’ve always been impressed by the mere fact of his survival. He has been stuck in a cruel system that could have left him one of the lost boys of Rhode Island. He has had brief tastes of normalcy mixed with hard stretches of pointless, spirit-sapping supervision. Now, he is going to college, trying to claim all those things denied him when his life was not his own.

Like many before him, Nicholas Alahverdian ended up in state care because his family couldn’t take care of him. He lists depression and posttraumatic stress disorder as his biggest problems. And once in the system, he found it is very hard to get out. He had some almost happy periods. There was a pretty good group home in Providence where he lived while attending Hope High School. There was a foster home that looked like it could be a long-term place to live until the foster parents decided they couldn’t make the commitment.

We met in November 2002. These are some quotes from the first column I wrote about Nicholas Alahverdian. They are in reference to the night-to-night placement he endured while under the control of the state Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).

“It’s scary, ridiculously scary. 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 to 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.”

Night-to-night placement was, by anybody’s standards, a disaster. It was kid-dumping on the move. Long empty days would begin at a DCYF building in Pawtucket and end in one of the shelters scattered throughout the state — Woonsocket, Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket, Narragansett.

“I never learned how to be a kid,” said Nicholas Alahverdian.

The incredible and frightening thing about Nicholas Alahverdian’s story is that once he was past night-tonight placement, he was subjected to something even worse. At our first meeting, he was enthused about his work as a page and an aide at the State House. He seemed to have the worst behind him. But he didn’t.

“Night-to-night was like Disney-land compared to Manatee Palms,” he said.

On Tuesday at noon, he is planning to hold a news conference in the State House Rotunda to talk about what has happened to him and what he is doing to try to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else. He will discuss the legislation he has been working on.

The bill he has worked on for a long time is basically his response to the horror story he had to live for too long. It would put safeguards in place to prevent kids from being sent to places far harsher and more restrictive than they need to be.

“Kids need school, not confinement,” Nicholas Alahverdian said.

He calls for a compliance officer to be put in place to protect the right of children in state care to be placed in the least restrictive environment possible. And thorough research would have to be conducted into all facilities being considered for out-of-state placements to make sure they comply with Rhode Island law.

The right to contact a lawyer, call a help line, or contact a family member would be guaranteed. While DCYF officials stress that such contact is always guaranteed, Nicholas Alahverdian says he was denied outside contact at Manatee Palms and Boys Town in Nebraska, where he was sent earlier.

Every kid in the system would get a copy of the Children’s Bill of Rights.

The decision to come out now and tell the story, to put classes at Harvard on hold for a semester so that he can lobby for the legislation, means there will be a smart public voice asking the questions seldom asked about the way DCYF deals with kids.

Stephanie Terry, associate director of Child Welfare Services for DCYF, says Nicholas Alahverdian makes some legitimate points.

“We’re in the midst of trying to get away from residential care,” said Terry. “It doesn’t normalize; it makes things more difficult. If you tell a child when to eat, when to go to bed, how can they come out of that and know how to deal with life?”

She has a simple explanation for why kids are sent out of state. They are sent out of state because their needs cannot be met in state. But Rep. Roberto DaSilva, who represents East Providence and Pawtucket, said that he will introduce legislation by the March 3 deadline to end all out-of-state placements. He says there are resources here to provide the necessary treatment and he has talked with providers willing to do that.

While she said she can’t comment directly on Alahverdian’s case, Terry said that DCYF stopped using Manatee Palms, a 60-bed psychiatric facility in Bradenton, in 2005.

“There were concerns we had with the way they were treating our kids,” she said.

In 2004, the state paid Manatee Palms $49,468. In 2005, it paid $274,002. Since then, the facility has twice been closed by the State of Florida because of “hurtful behavior” by staff.

Nicholas Alahverdian got there on Sept. 9, 2004, and stayed for eight months. He figures his tab at about $85,000.

He remembers the lobby was beautiful. Once inside, he saw holes punched in the walls and heard constant screaming.

“I was a geek nerd who wanted to read.”

He said he was assaulted almost every day. He finally got out, he said, after Pat Chabot, a DCYF social worker, visited and realized how bad the situation was. Rhode Island Family Court finally intervened.

Nicholas Alahverdian has “aged out” of the system. His resilience is stunning. He has been through two out-of-state placements — Boys Town in Nebraska, which was a bust, and Manatee Palms, which was a nightmare. He thinks part of the reason he was sent far away is because he kept challenging the system here at home.

“The problem here was, I was consistently informative, a source of information on DCYF.”

He just wanted to go to school, he said, and he can’t understand why that couldn’t have been arranged in the state he grew up in. He will probably never get a real explanation.

We can only hope that Nicholas Alahverdian is one of the last of the Rhode Island kids sent away and cut off from home. DCYF is changing, Terry says. For one thing, night-tonight placement is never, ever coming back. And while there are currently 27 kids in out-of-state placement, more than half are in Massachusetts and Connecticut. And some placements are made with the knowledge of family members living close to facilities in other states.

“You can’t make behavioral changes in children and not work with the family at the same time,” said Terry.