Mr. Nicholas Alahverdian (1987-2020) was an author and political scientist. He grew up in homes and facilities that contracted with government agencies such as the Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF) of Rhode Island and its equivalent agencies in Nebraska, Florida, and other regions.
As a young man he had an interest in politics and government. When Alahverdian at age 14 was employed by the Rhode Island General Assembly as a page and then a legislative aide in a program for select high school students, it gave him the opportunity as a teenager to see how government works. From early 2002 until mid-2003 he worked with legislators and learned how bills were created, drafted, debated and passed to become laws.
At the same time Alahverdian was living in a DCYF-administered program where he spent each night in a different group home or shelter on a sofa or spare cot and was rarely allowed to attend school. Many children and teens from the 2000s went through this program, called “night to night,” even though the Rhode Island House of Representatives and the Senate demanded DCYF bring it to an end. The system was overpopulated and there were not enough beds to match the need.
Resolutions and bills were introduced and passed by legislators to end the practice or amend it to allow school attendance. Sadly this did not happen for many years.
Aside from the “night to night” program DCYF was constantly overspending and removed children from their family homes at a rate that was one of the highest in the nation. Alahverdian told the legislators he worked with about his experiences and they worked to pass legislation to reform the social service system.
Some of the people that were responsible were the Rhode Island DCYF Directors, the Chief Judge of the Family Court, and DCYF administrators.
While he was in the “night to night” program and began to help draft bills to reform the DCYF and its practices it became clear that Alahverdian could no longer be a government employee since he was acting as a “lobbyist”, or someone who talks to legislators or other state officials about changing the laws, at the same time.
After resigning his employment he became a lobbyist and filed the necessary documents with the Secretary of State required by the law. In this process Alahverdian created the “Youth Government Agency” as a lobbying entity at age 15 and considered every family, child, and teen that had DCYF involvement to be his client. As a lobbyist he testified before multiple legislative committees and spoke with the legislators that he knew from his time in the State House. Alahverdian spoke about the abuse and neglect including violence, lack of food, and the inability to attend school that children and teens faced in the “night to night” program.
After local media told the story about Alahverdian’s efforts to work with lawmakers to improve DCYF practices, an embarassed Family Court Chief Judge and DCYF Director coordinated to send him to a group home in Nebraska in June 2003 and then to another in Florida in 2004. During these two years Alahverdian was tortured. He was not allowed to contact his DCYF social worker, the police, child abuse investigators, the legislators he worked with, or the media. He was severely injured in these homes and he was on a nearly lethal cocktail of unnecessary drugs according to his longtime psychiatrist who evaluated him upon his return to Rhode Island.
When Alahverdian returned to Rhode Island in June 2005 he was not himself and it took him several years to regain his knowledge and skills. In November 2010 he realized that he was hurt in these homes and remembered that he advocated to reform the DCYF. He created a plan that would result in a bipartisan effort to improve the DCYF in the next legislative session. Working once again with legislators beginning in February 2011 Alahverdian advocated for legislation that would add other rights to the Rhode Island children’s bill of rights, stop unnecessary placements far from Rhode Island, and create an oversight commission that would allow members of the House and Senate to supervise the actions of the DCYF, identify problem areas, and implement solutions.
In April 2011 Alahverdian filed a federal lawsuit against the DCYF and the Family Court, the “night to night” shelter operators, and the group homes in Nebraska and Florida where he was hurt. The case was resolved by a U.S. magistrate and approved by a federal judge.
After his advocacy and lawsuit, Alahverdian’s efforts were part of a larger, renewed call for DCYF reform in Rhode Island. The media began to frequently report on DCYF abuse and agency corruption, legislators would successfully demand the resignation of DCYF directors, and House and Senate committees would investigate occurrences of child abuse and fatalities with a serious desire to figure out what was causing the DCYF and its staff to abuse and neglect children and teens so often.
Even with this renewed call for reform from 2011-2017, DCYF group homes were closed for safety violations and abuse, several DCYF employees pleaded guilty to drug and abuse charges and other charges, and the DCYF child fatality rate reached the highest point in its history. This led to Harvard Kennedy School professor Jeffrey Liebman claiming that the DCYF was “the most messed-up agency” he had ever encountered.
In late 2017 Alahverdian’s health began to decline and he was diagnosed with a serious blood cancer along with recurrent heart attacks. By this time he had his own children and a loving wife by his side to care for him. When his doctors explained in late 2019 that his condition was deterioriating, Alahverdian worked with legislators once again to call for DCYF reform. Legislation was introduced again and Alahverdian’s two decade refrain was echoed again: the DCYF system must treat children and teens with respect and dignity, and abuse and neglect must end.
This last call for action was to be short-lived. In late February, Alahverdian’s condition worsened. He died with his wife and children by his side, along with his friends and his wife’s family, the books he loved, and music he cherished. He was 32 years old.
After his death, his work continues through The NA Trust where our staff and volunteers continue to advocate for social services reform in Rhode Island and beyond. We also provide professional services including academic, legal, social, and other support to our clients who have “aged out” of the social services system at no cost.
For more information please contact us.