By Nicholas Alahverdian
Originally published in November 2011
Earlier this month, in a remarkable demonstration of accountability, the Penn State Board of Trustees dismissed a member of the coaching staff who committed sexual assault upon a child, as well as his colleagues who assisted in the subsequent coverup. Perhaps the most exalted figure in college football, head coach Joe Paterno, was ousted as a result of his failure to report the rape, which allegedly occurred in March of 2002.
Americans have long worshiped idols crafted of the Paterno personality. The fall of one of America’s great athletic icons angered many fans and students. However, this signified deliberate action taken by a nationally recognized university to attempt to right the wrongs of a dishonorable collegiate athletic administration.
Child abuse is, unfortunately, not a rare occurrence. However, because the abuse and subsequent coverup was perpetrated by individuals employed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the swift, conscious firings were imperative and justified. The abuse became international news overnight, which begs this question: is a public discussion of abuse and coverup by state employees only required when a nationally-ranked football team is involved?
In 2002, I was in the care and custody of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families. At the same time, I was working at the Rhode Island House of Representatives as a legislative aide. I had daily contact with then-Speaker John Harwood, and many other representatives and senators. I also had daily contact with employees of group homes and shelters that assaulted and tortured me on a daily basis. I believe that working for the State of Rhode Island and simultaneously being in the care of the State is unprecedented in Rhode Island history.
As legislators listened to the horrors that plagued my existence on a daily basis, they began to interrogate the Department. State Rep. Brian Coogan went to the chambers of Family Court Chief Judge Jeremiah S. Jeremiah and volunteered to adopt me. Rep. Joanne Giannini pressured Department heads to allow me to be placed in a safe placement. Unfortunately, day after day, I was in the night-to-night program, life on the road, a purely jumbled existence, with no real home, being transferred from shelter to shelter and several public schools a week, and nightly beatings and even rapes from fellow foster children and the employees hired to take care of us. When Donald L. Carcieri was campaigning for Governor in 2001, I even confided to him the assaults, which he did not report.
So let’s see if I’ve got this straight: a coach on a state football team rich with legacy and tradition takes in foster children and is found to be raping them in his spare time. Penn State’s Board of Trustees steps in, takes action, the responsible individuals are prosecuted, an interim president is appointed, and the Governor apologizes to the family involved. I, and many other youth who grew up in state care, could only wish for such leadership.
When I decided to temporarily pause my studies in literature and go public in February 2011 with the abuse and negligence that I suffered until 2005 when I turned 18, I expected at the very least an apology. Perhaps a “we could have done better.” Ideally, Governor Chafee would endorse my proposed legislation that would enhance the children’s bill of rights and prohibit the shipment of children out of state if there was an appropriate placement in state. But none of that happened. Chafee didn’t meet with me, 2 or 3 committee members would be present at hearings, and the Rhode Island Attorney General is defending those (in a civil lawsuit) guilty of abuse instead of prosecuting them.
Furthermore, I was considered a burden to the legislative process that I had once seen as my only hope. Speaker Fox, the man who hired me even before he was Chair of the Finance Committee, never met with me. Rarely was I asked by representatives or senators what my experiences were. I was shutdown at a committee hearing by the chair for speaking for more than ten minutes, and my bills never made it out of committee. My decision to publicly expose the wrongs I suffered in order to right the future was largely ignored. Most discouraging, the Rhode Island Attorney General hasn’t even launched a criminal investigation into my suffering. Now, as a Harvard undergraduate, I pour my energy into scholarship, yet there is a ubiquitous, nagging feeling of dismay and distrust in a system that failed me and hundreds of other children.
In stark contrast to the current course of action taken by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Penn State Board of Trustees, the arrogant and provincial legislative, judicial, and executive bodies of Rhode Island government have turned a deaf ear to abuse that occurred a decade ago. The Penn State abuse scandal has proven that even the greatest of charming figures, athletic or political, can be held responsible. If only Rhode Island would be so courageous to take action and lead by example. Let us not be ungovernable.
Nicholas Alahverdian is a Harvard scholar with a primary research focus on the intersection of philology, rhetoric, and politics.