A survivor tells the story of kid-dumping

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A survivor tells the story of kid dumping

By Bob Kerr

24 November 2002

The Providence Journal

© 2002 Providence Journal/Evening Bulletin. All Rights Reserved.

This is Nicholas Alahverdian. And as he 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.

He 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,” he 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, he 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 Nicholas Alahverdian’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, Nicholas Alahverdian 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.

Nicholas Alahverdian 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. He 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.

Nicholas Alahverdian 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 Nicholas Alahverdian.

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

Nicholas Alahverdian, torture
Click on the image above

Bob Kerr: Out of state and Out of Mind

By Bob Kerr
The Providence Journal

February 27, 2011

Nicholas Alahverdian
Bob Kerr

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.