As I’ve grown older, my Christmases have become progressively better. Usually it’s the other way around. People tend to experience that magical feeling next to a tree decorated with glittery, beautiful ornaments best when they are young. But when one grows up in foster care, it’s a nightmare.
I was a foster kid. Some would say orphan. Others would say “ward of the state.” It was a horrible situation, especially for me, because I would end up dealing with even worse abuse than most other foster kids because I reported the abusive practices of what was going on in the state social service system to my legislators and other state officials. But we shall save that story for another time.Continue reading The Unopened Christmas Gift
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.
I have, in collaboration with current and former Representatives Bob DaSilva, Raymond Hull, Michael Marcello, Anastasia Williams and multitudinous others, drafted and submitted bills to ameliorate the seemingly irremediable Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). We have introduced this legislation year after year. Each bill, year after year, has been held for further study.
Interestingly enough, when I was actively lobbying for this legislation in my 2011 DCYF reform blitz, we had over 40 co-sponsors in the House. Think about that for a second. The House of Representatives has 75 members. There were forty co-sponsors. If those bills were transmitted from committee to the floor for a vote, they would have passed with flying colors. Continue reading DCYF Report: Recurrent, vile and ominous abuse findings. Again.
Hollybeth Runco, a blond woman in her forties, lives in a two-story Craftsman-style house on the east side of Providence, Rhode Island. On a recent Sunday afternoon, she and her husband, Tom, sat at their dining-room table with a few friends, drinking Cabernet and waiting for their guest of honor, Vincent Cianci, Jr., who is known by his nickname, Buddy.
“When we moved here, ten years ago, all I heard was Buddy jokes,” Tom said.
Susan Teeden-Cielo, a friend from the neighborhood, said, “When Hollybeth announced this, she got a lot of hate just for giving Buddy the time of day.” (Responding to Runco’s invitation, one neighbor wrote, “This waste of skin is a cancer to Providence.”)
“People think he’s a stain on the city, and they are worried that he’s slick enough to make people forget what he’s done,” Tom said.
Cianci was the mayor of Providence from 1975 to 1984, and again from 1991 to 2002. (Philip Gourevitch wrote about Cianci for The New Yorker in 2002.) He is the most influential figure in the city’s modern history, and many people credit him with bringing economic life to what was once a post-industrial backwater. He is also a convicted felon who is something of a local joke.
Though he left prison seven years ago, stores still sell T-shirts that say “Free Buddy”; his face is on the label of a popular brand of pasta sauce, Mayor’s Own Marinara. He also hosts a call-in radio show, which he describes as “lucrative.” Improbably, he is running for a seventh term, as an independent. Even more improbably, he has a decent chance of winning: a recent poll has him six points in the lead. He seems to belong to a special class of zombie politicians—Marion Barry, Eliot Spitzer—who can be embarrassed by scandal but not shamed into silence.
Runco, a former engineer, is now a homemaker. She has two children, one of whom has special needs. A few weeks ago, she heard a rumor that the public schools would be cutting back on special-education services. She called the school board and met with the current mayor, but their answers were not satisfactory.
“Finally, I found the name of Buddy’s campaign manager and cold-called her. She was on my couch the next day,” Runco said. Cianci offered to attend an informal meeting about the issue, and Runco invited a dozen friends. “Some are skeptical, some are haters, some are agnostic,” she said. “I don’t think anyone is ready to say they’re a supporter, including myself.”
A Lincoln Town Car pulled up, and Cianci climbed the stairs to the house, a bit unsteadily. He was once cannonball-shaped, with a charging gait and a voluminous toupee. Now, at seventy-three, he is thinner, slower, and openly bald. He wore khakis, a buttoned blazer, and thick glasses that magnified puppy-dog eyes. “I’m mostly here to listen,” he said, before talking for fifteen minutes.
“The city has changed, but not really,” he said, sitting at the dining-room table. “The biggest thing this time around is the technology. We hired a company that breaks down voters and their behavior—you know, people who like baseball are more likely to vote for me, that kind of thing. It’s remarkable how much privacy we’ve given up in this country.” Noticing that he had his back to some of the guests, he turned and said, “My apologies, ladies. I’m not used to doing theatre in the round.”
Runco, seated across from Cianci, said, “I’m going to sit right here, because I’m partially deaf and I read lips. It’s not that I want to make out with you.”
“Good,” Cianci said. “I’ve got enough problems.”
In 1984, Cianci’s first term was interrupted when he was found guilty of assaulting a man who was dating his ex-wife. In 2002, after undercover federal agents recorded hundreds of conversations in City Hall, Cianci was indicted on twenty-nine charges of corruption. He told the group at Runco’s house, “I was found not guilty of the RICO”—crimes defined by the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act—“but was found guilty of conspiracy to commit RICO. Go figure.” He served a four-and-a-half-year prison term but still professes his innocence, preferring to speak vaguely of “regrets.” “I gave a speech and some kid sits in the front row and says, ‘What would you have changed in your life?’ Being a smart-ass, I said, ‘The verdict.’ ”
Runco and her guests voiced their concerns. Kirsten Murphy said, “My son can see our elementary school from his window, but the city told us that they would allocate funds to bus him to another school.”
“That’s just stupid!” Cianci said.
“What’s your plan for busing?” Runco asked.
“Look, I was mayor when we were going through voluntary desegregation,” he said. “I know I don’t look that old, but I am. But now you have to revert to neighborhood autonomy.” He added, “My good friend Richie Daley, in Chicago, he’s done a pretty decent job with the schools out there.” (Daley, Chicago’s former mayor, survived several scandals.)
Cianci took a call on his iPhone—it had something to do with an upcoming city-council vote. As he talked, he took a bite of one of the meatballs Teeden-Cielo had put out, and made an A-O.K. hand gesture.
He hung up the phone. “I want to talk about the story of American cities,” he said. “I made a decision years ago not to knock down our historic buildings. That was the big thing back then—knock ’em down, build something new. I don’t want to name names, but New Haven and Hartford did that.” He continued, “People ask other questions—whether we should invade Iraq and all that. That’s not me. I pick the garbage up.”
“I don’t know if this is too personal, but I have to ask,” Kira Greene said. “In the past, obviously, things didn’t always go the way you wanted them to go. I don’t know how to phrase it, but—could you be a better mayor because you made mistakes?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Cianci said. “In hindsight, if I want to be honest, I wouldn’t have voted for myself in 1974. It took a few years to get running. But I had a lot of vitality and devotion to the city, and that hasn’t diminished at all. They ask me, ‘Isn’t it a shame for you to run again?’ I’m not the problem. The city is in debt, failing schools—that’s the shame.”
He stood up. “Hey, listen, I talked too much—that’s been my trouble my whole life—but I really enjoyed it.”
After showing him out, Runco said, “I think it was less about deciding ‘I’m definitely voting for him’ and more just about getting comfortable with the idea.”
“It’s harder to hate someone when they’re sitting right in front of you,” Tom said. He had been in the anyone-but-Buddy camp, but he was reconsidering. “Our friends warned us not to get taken in: ‘He puts on a good show, but don’t believe a word he says.’ Well, unless you hook him up to a polygraph, I guess it’s impossible to know.”
Today I’d like to talk about things that are inevitable. Weather is an especially inevitable consequence of living in this great world, and we see things that we are privileged to see. These things may include tornadoes, snowstorms, the foliage of autumn, and many other supernatural beauties of nature.
In the Midwest, I have found it quite disconcerting that there really is no happy medium. I found that it doesn’t really have a transitional period. Between summer and autumn it has just gone from wicked warm to pretty cold in just a few short days.
Usually in places that I’ve lived such as New England and New York and even Utah, there are transitional periods where one is allowed to become acclimated to the seasons and the transition periods thereof. We sort of depend on this as human beings to invite us welcomingly into the next season. We simply don’t expect there to be such a binary approach to weather, where it goes from hot to cold to freezing with no meteorological intermission. Continue reading Thoughts on Autumn, Harvard, and the Future of Today’s Students
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Nicholas Alahverdian was a 15-year-old foster child when he was sent from Rhode Island to live in facilities for troubled young people, first in Nebraska and later in Florida. According to lawsuits he filed, he was subjected to regular physical and emotional abuse.
Now 24, Alahverdian blames officials in Rhode Island for moving him hundreds of miles from his home, school and friends. The state is failing its foster children when it places them far from its oversight, he said.
“It’s an inhumane approach to a human problem,” Alahverdian told The Associated Press. “These are the most vulnerable people in Rhode Island. We have the ability to provide for them here. And we’re spending all this money to ship them across the country.”
Each year, Rhode Island sends dozens of children to facilities elsewhere, at a cost to taxpayers that has averaged $14 million over the past decade, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through an open-records request. In fiscal year 2010, for instance, 117 foster children were placed out of state, most in neighboring Massachusetts but some in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
Rhode Island plans to spend $88 million this year on foster care programs.
Officials at the Department of Children, Youth and Families said Rhode Island has made great strides in reducing the number of children sent out of state. As of Aug. 1, there were 1,700 children in state custody. Fifty-four are in out-of-state facilities. That’s down sharply from just a few years ago, when more than 200 children were sent out of state. In fiscal year 2008, for instance, the state spent $19.8 million housing 231 children in 13 states.
In several cases, children were sent to facilities with troubling records of employee misconduct, abuse and even death.
The Stonington Institute in Connecticut came under fire in 2008 after teen boys were forcibly injected with medications designed to restrain them. In 2006, Connecticut officials temporarily halted new admissions at the facility after inspectors reported insufficient staffing and poor employee training. Yet Rhode Island sent children to the facility from 2007 to 2010.
Officials in Virginia this year temporarily halted admissions at the Pines Residential Treatment Center’s two facilities after reporting “significant problems” over several years, including the mishandling of a sexual abuse complaint. North Carolina removed many of its children from the Pines after a parent reported that their child had been sexually abused by two other residents. Rhode Island sent children to the Pines facilities in five of the past 10 years.
Two Texas facilities that have received Rhode Island children were part of a chain of treatment centers criticized for the deaths of five residents since 1988. In each case the children died after being restrained. In 2003, Texas investigators determined that a 17-year-old boy who asphyxiated at one of the company’s wilderness camps in 2002 after being restrained. The company later sold the facilities. Rhode Island sent children to the facilities from 2002-2005.
The officials who oversee Rhode Island’s foster care system said they only send children to facilities in other states as a last resort, when a child’s physical or mental health needs require treatment no facility within the state can provide.
“I would love to say that we would never need to rely on out-of-state placement,” said Kevin Aucoin, acting director of the Department of Children, Youth and Families. “But I don’t think that’s realistic. There are children who come into our care with highly specialized treatment needs and we need to go outside the state to identify the programs best suited for them.”
Alahverdian said welfare officials told him he was being sent to out-of-state facilities because he suffered from bipolar disorder, which he denies. He believes he was sent to facilities in Nebraska and Florida because he spoke to state lawmakers about problems he experienced with the foster care system. When he was at those facilities, he said he rarely heard from the state officials charged with his well-being. Aucoin said caseworkers are required to visit Rhode Island children in out-of-state care at least every six months.
Aucoin noted that the overall number of children sent to institutions in other states – and the resulting cost to taxpayers – declined sharply in 2009 and 2010. And when children are placed elsewhere, Aucoin said most of them are sent to facilities in nearby Massachusetts.
Some lawmakers want to go further and prohibit the state from sending foster children out of the state at all. Rep. Roberto DaSilva, D-East Providence, introduced legislation this year that would bar the practice unless authorities can show it’s not possible to keep the child in Rhode Island. He proposed the legislation after meeting with Alahverdian.
“The amount of money we’re spending here is huge,” DaSilva said. “There are facilities here in Rhode Island that could provide these services. And who does the oversight on these out-of-state facilities? Are they being watched as closely as the ones right here?”
DaSilva’s bill didn’t get a vote, but he plans to try again next year.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said it’s common for states to use out-of-state facilities for foster care. His group issued a report last year that labeled Rhode Island’s foster care system one of the worst. Rhode Island officials remove children at almost double the average rate in other states, the report calculated.
“The root of the problem is that Rhode Island takes away too many kids in the first place,” he said. “The system is overloaded at every step, so the state feels it has no choice but to send these kids out of state. I believe that creates a second trauma for these kids who have already been removed from their families.”
Aucoin doesn’t disagree. He said DCYF is a few years into an effort to reduce the total number of children in state care. In 2007, there were more than 2,500 children in the state’s foster care system. This year there are 1,700.
“There was a culture shift in the agency to focus on community based interventions, family based interventions with the goal of decreasing the number of children coming into DCYF care,” Aucoin said. “It’s better for the child, and better for the family.”
Alahverdian said more must be done. He was placed in state custody because his parents struggled with alcoholism and were abusive, he said. He remained in state custody until he was nearly 18. This year he worked as a lobbyist at the Statehouse, trying to convince lawmakers to reform the state’s foster care system. He’s taking college courses and is considering law school, or a career as an advocate for children in the foster care system.
“A big part of me wants to solve this problem,” he said. “But I don’t know if Rhode Island wants to solve this problem.”