The first thing I remember is the brightness of the sun. The blazing, white-hot sun, and then being whisked into a luxurious lobby.It was a welcome departure from the drab, impoverished climate of Omaha, Nebraska where I had spent the previous 24 months.As I sit and attempt to remember the month that I was sent to this hellhole in Florida, my mind is simply drawn blank. That’s how overmedicated I was.
Jim Hickok and I sat in a dark diner in a lodge during a light snow, silently staring into our coffee and mulling over the recent midterm election. As Jim wasn’t from the Ocean State, I had to give him the lowdown on the ways of Rogue’s Island. In the smallest state, you had schemers and cleaners, aging old school dons and Italian grandmothers who still didn’t speak English. You had the different hills of the capital city, straight out of central casting, each with its distinct power structure — with some based in legitimate interests and others in so-called crime.
For two decades with a brief interruption, this capital city of this state called Rogue — the Island of Rogue — had an inspirational Mayor. Some say he was Jekyll, some say he was Hyde, but at one point or another, aren’t we all a little bit of both?
Jim worked as a stagecoach driver and had met some colorful characters out there on the high prairie and the frozen tundra. He was well known throughout the west as a gambler and actor. He had seen it all. Jim had many stories to tell and met people I could only dream of meeting. He had lived in places far and wide, and if there ever was a thing Jim Hickok knew how to do well, it was to put his finger on the pulse of a town and see what made its gears turn.
Jim sat back and stared at me with his icy eyes. “Back where I’m from we have a saying embossed on a plaque that we give to every incoming elected official, no matter their office,” he said. “It goes something like this. Oh, let me write it down… you’ll need it some day, Nicholas.”
Jim grabbed a napkin and pulled a fountain pen from his leather waistcoat, which seemed to have a pocket for something needed for any profession. This was *the* Jim Hickok after all.
He handed me the most luxuriously crisp parchment upon which he wrote:
“Leader of the people, come with humble heart, know there are few that can play your part. When you are faced with worry or woe, ensure you do right for friend or foe. Will you serve your fellow man? Remember the code taught since time began.”
After the passage, on that crisp beautiful parchment, old Jim Hickok wrote “To Nicholas Alahverdian, survivor of the Island of Rogue. May the eyes of God weep on that land until the corrupt scions and political lions are flooded out.”
“Island of Rogue,” I said. “Quite fitting.”
Island of Rogue
“Son, don’t you even know your own history?” Jim asked, sounding slightly annoyed. “I’d hate to go back West and tell them about the fabled Nicholas Alahverdian, that old survivor, the one they called the storm, who everyone thought fought so hard yet had so little faith in himself, was yearning to learn but applying it to nothing, working for something but forgetting why he started fighting like a one-armed boxer in the first place.”
I stared into the black abyss of the coffee, trying to focus myself into oblivion. Here was old Jim Hickok, the legend. The lore surrounding this man haunted me for decades. Now he was insulting my performance. I didn’t even know anyone bought a ticket, let alone someone was watching the performance that was my broken, shattered life.
Hickok stood up from his chair, his heavy leather boots stomping on the creaky wooden floor and shaking the trinkets on the walls of the lodge.
He grabbed me by the lapels and shouted, “Besides the tigers that crouch and wait for your blood, why were you brought here? You’ve walked with great men, they’ve led you with the scepter and the pen. You betray the promise you made the day you left home. The promise you were meant to keep under every spire, roof, and dome.”
I felt sick and queasy and he tossed me about. Old Jim could easily fry me as he would a freshly caught trout.
Haunted by the past and fearful of the future
I stuttered and staggered, falling about like a bleeding hound. “Under the dome of which you speak on a hill called Smith, I shined a light on a war that people called a myth. The forests know, as do the mountains; nature is my silent witness that the blood spouted from my head like a million fountains. I was nearly killed, just another body for the counting. And then one winter night, a villianous trollop made everything worse, and forevermore they’ve left me with this curse.”
Hickok just stared at my discourse as if it floated in the air, something tangible, nearly palpable. His burly fists still clutched my lapels, like pearls clinging to shells.
Jim Hickok paused and released his grasp. “Nicholas Alahverdian, don’t you know why you survived so many blows? The curse of which you speak was a ticket to a life — without it, your existence would be terse. You were taught to travel, ramble, and roam, and never again will you be alone. You survived a treacherous scheme masquerading as a church, they bedeviled you from their lowly perch. As the wind came and went and blew you away, you survived yet another day. Do you remember your days in the Ivory Tower, your moments of enlightenment blooming like a flower? No more did you need a motley unattractive throng, no more did you require to sing the warrior’s song. You fought power and you demanded penance from a corrupt king, you made everything new — your life, once again, is in its morning.”
The Renaissance is a lie
Two men appeared, dressed in black. They held newspapers with headlines. Electoral victories for Nicholas Mattiello and Gina Raimondo. Rogue’s Island remains true to its name. Hickok grabbed the paper from his bodyguard and walked slowly back towards me. “You don’t want to be on this sinking ship,” he said, “that you can see through the nearly blinding brine. You would speak the truth and once again be treated like swine.”
I put on my Stetson and moved for the door. “Old Jim,” I said, “My thanks comes from my heart, indeed, it comes from its core.” I turned around and closed my eyes, the frost on my face felt like a welcome prize.
”Alahverdian!” he shouted, before I left. “Don’t ever think you’re ever bereft. Your fighting days are over, step away from the deaf and blind. Go forward with wisdom, and use your mind. Those rogues, Nick and Gina, this is their day, but know now and forever, they have a price to pay. Just like those past who ruled from under that dome, their corruption and treachery will soon be known. But don’t waste your time, it’s no longer your war, you’ve made your mark and it has been felt at the core.”
I looked down, my brow caked with sweat. I forgot about the Mayor, which I began to regret. “Old Jim,” I said, “One more thing. The Mayor brought more than anyone else could bring. To this Island of Rogues, he gave a city called Renaissance, his place in history firmly ensconced. To suffer and be exiled from my glorious city, doesn’t it cause you to have any pity?”
“Nicholas,” he said, “in Renaissance, your skies were eerily overcast, and don’t you recall, the fiery blast? It’s not your home, you don’t belong, they tortured and beat you, and sung you death’s song. I can bring you back. I can let you see. But do you really want to engage in such stupidity?”
I shuffled my boots and emptied my brain. I thought of the strife, I thought of the pain. It was Jim, who reminded me of this toil, and at that second my blood started to boil.
“Old Jim,” I said, “It seems you’re right. There’s no point in returning to a land without light. They drained the sea when they exiled me, the first time, the second — there won’t be three.”
Old Jim stood solid at the brass back door. He straightened his tie and tapped his cane on the floor. “Alahverdian,” said he, “you’ve finally made the best choice. There are causes and efforts more worthy of your voice.”
I turned around, and faced the cold. I knew in my heart the decision was bold. Chopping down the tree of knowledge, I thought of their hate. I then knew that this was my fate. I worked and toiled and made a pirogue, to sail forever away from the Island of Rogue.
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.
“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.