Dreading and Hoping All | Nicholas Alahverdian

Nicholas Alahverdian
Oct 30 · 18 min read

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Nicholas Alahverdian
Nicholas Alahverdian

Excerpt from Dreading and Hoping All
By Nicholas Alahverdian
Copyright © 2019 by The Nicholas Edward Alahverdian Trust. All rights reserved.

No part of this excerpt may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission. For information about permission to reproduce selections from this excerpt, please email the Nicholas Edward Alahverdian Press at neapress@protonmail.com

PROLOGUE

This is the first volume of a series of microbooks I am calling “The Orphan Chronicles.” In the pages and volumes that follow, I hope to share my experience for the benefit of various audiences and readers. Whether you are a social worker, an adult who was once an orphan, policymaker, politician, researcher, student, or simply want to know what it’s like to grow up without parents and in a broken state system, this series is for you. This series has been in the planning stages for over five years. With each volume, you will most certainly want to read the next. Be sure to follow me on Twitter (which I will try to use, but have neglected significantly following an account hack five years ago) at @nalahverdian or visit nicholasalahverdian.com for the latest updates on The Orphan Chronicles.

I’ve battled with myself for over a decade on how and when to write my memoirs about significant life events such as growing up as an orphan and simultaneously working for the government, and the amazing adventures that followed after I was released from that Minotaur of an unforgiving system.

Experiences that glow in my mind of which I am proud include attending Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, advising legislators in Washington, D.C., at the Rhode Island Capitol and State Houses across the east coast, and being invited to speak at universities, various federal agencies, think tanks and nongovernmental organizations. I would also write about the ultimate highlight of my life thus far: being invited to regular dinners and conferences with my professor, Harvard advisor, and friend, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, one of the greatest writers and poets of all time.

As I have advanced in age, however, and realized that my peak in advocacy and political activism is long gone, it became necessary to find a workable solution with which to document my vast array of experiences before they fade away as a result of the curse of age and fading memory.

Microbooks have provided that solution. I define a microbook as a book that is 25–125 pages long. It is easier for both author and reader. You will soon see why, especially when the subject matter is so difficult, 30 pages about how group homes can implement security measures to eliminate tortuous or abusive behavior perpetrated by employees is incredibly important.

Besides, sitting down at a desk and laboring over an epic tome concerning each of my experiences ranging from abuse and torture at the hands of group home employees all the way to when I started studying at Harvard University simply wouldn’t be practical. If I were to take a linear approach (in other words, following a historical timeline approach from beginning to end) to documenting my experiences, I would be making an unwise decision. The book would never be finished.

The symptoms of my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would be exacerbated beyond repair. And my life would be profoundly impacted. My young and growing family would suffer, and that would be most unfair to them, especially for past events that they cannot control.

Thus, I began to consult with friends and colleagues about how to best go about documenting what I consider to be valuable information about my life, what I’ve learned, and, most importantly, the past, current, and future infrastructural status of the State of Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) and how to bring about the permanent amelioration of this agency for the benefit of Rhode Island’s children and families.

The DCYF is the broken foster care/juvenile justice/child “protection” system in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (it’s universally characterized as “broken” by everyone: including the Rhode Island General Assembly, lobbyist firms, the State of Rhode Island’s Office of the Child Advocate, nongovernmental organizations, and even the federal government).

Perhaps the adjective “broken” is far too nice. For starters, Jeffrey B. Liebman, Ph.D. of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University has dubbed the Rhode Island DCYF as the “most messed up agency” that he’s encountered — ever. And he knows a broken system when he sees one.

Dr. Liebman, an economist by training, served as an economic advisor to the 2008 presidential campaign of then-Senator Barack Obama. He later went on to serve as the associate executive director and chief economist of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the Obama Administration.

Dr. Liebman’s words are now recited in most Providence Journal op-eds and other media articles about the agency because it’s a great hook — albeit a very unfortunate one — for a news story. The Department’s constant stream of bad news — unqualified employees, deaths or near-deaths of children in its care, and closures of group homes are becoming more and more frequent.

The issues in the press merely form the tip of the iceberg. Whistleblowers, researchers, victims, and the agency itself are confirming what I and others have been claiming for over 20 years. Our words, once dismissed by some at the State House as exaggerations or even impossible, are finally being accepted as truth.

The people that call for DCYF reform are no longer the tinfoil-hat-wearing-“sky is falling”-shouting maniacs that longtime DCYF demagogues like Government Affairs/Perpetual Assistant to the Director Mike Burk and Legal Counsel Kevin Aucoin wanted us to be characterized as. And that is exactly how it should be — because the time for dying children is over. The time for abuse is over. And the time for negligence is over.

We are on the RMS Titanic and we have been shouting “ICEBERG! DEAD AHEAD!” for twenty years while they laugh as they collect their paycheck and pension. They are not laughing as hard now since the Rhode Island General Assembly and the Providence market media are beginning to accelerate their coverage on each tragedy that occurs on a nearly weekly basis at the Department, but I can assure you that Burk (2020 salary: > $110,000.00) and Aucoin (2020 salary: > $155,000.00) are still suppressing a slight giggle as they deposit their six figure salaries while they continue to watch Director after Director resign or get fired while they are the ones truly to blame for this crisis that has been 25+ years in the making.

Each integral decision that has involved deaths, near-deaths, abuse, negligence, covered-up press stories, leaked stories about fake DCYF successes, mismanagement of grant funds, and many others which will be covered in further Orphan Chronicles volumes — all of them lead straight back to Michael S. Burk and Kevin J. Aucoin. If anyone in Rhode Island state politics wants to make a dent in the disaster that is the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, whether you want it to be a financial dent, moral dent, leadership dent, ethical dent — and you want to be remembered for doing the right thing — call for these two pinheads to resign.

And I just so happened to have had a front-row seat to witness the inner workings of this very agency of which we speak — with Burk and Aucoin whom I lovingly refer to as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum — leading the Department as its true authoritative figures. But this isn’t limited to just Burk and Aucoin. I came to intimately know the DCYF behemoth from both the inside as an orphan who lived it, and on the outside as a state employee in the Rhode Island General Assembly who supervised and oversaw its budget, successes, failures, and other activities.

I was first appointed as a Rhode Island General Assembly page at age 14 and then promoted as a special legislative aide in the House of Representatives, reporting to Speaker of the House John Harwood, his majority leader and successor to the Speakership, William Murphy, as well as Murphy’s successor Gordon Fox when he was House Finance chairman. More directly, my day-to-day briefings and services were provided to Representatives Beatrice Lanzi, Rene Menard, Paul Moura, Joanne Giannini, David Cicilline, and others. These duties mainly consisted of drafting legislation, communicating with constituents, gathering bills to be reviewed for a day’s particular legislative session, performing research on issues and stakeholders inherent in the legislation, and fulfilling any other responsibilities as required or requested.

I completed the latter of these two roles at the same time I was placed in the custody of the Department following my maternal grandfather’s death. His death had a profound impact on our family, and my mother resorted to unhealthy habits that began to impact the lives of her children.

I was removed from the family home and placed in the in the infamous DCYF night-to-night program as a result of my mother’s drinking and drug use, with my brother and sister soon to follow.

After spending a short time in DCYF shelters and then in the night-to-night program, I realized that the agency was in pandemonium. The only way I could be effective was to be a conduit through which the legislators could know what was really going on at the Department and inside the group homes and shelters with which it contracted. There were endless fights. Missed meals. No schooling was provided, or it was sporadic at best. Medical appointments were rarely kept. And employees of shelters and group homes were using state money and resources for their personal use.

When I discovered the extent of the problems surrounding DCYF and its widely-condemned night-to-night program, I made the very difficult decision to take a leave of absence from my employment with the State of Rhode Island and form my own nonprofit lobbying firm to advocate for the rights of children and adolescents who were orphans — some would use the pejorative term “wards of the state” as if the child or adolescent had done something wrong to get into this predicament — under the care and custody of the Rhode Island DCYF.

I had very simple goals: I wanted every orphan to be able to go to one school and remain in that school for the entire academic year. I wanted every orphan to be able to receive adequate medical care. I wanted every orphan to have the right to be able to participate in extra-curricular and academic activities in an effort to assist them to prepare for university. I wanted each orphan to be able to be placed in the least restrictive setting possible (which is already a federal law, Rhode Island simply chooses not to follow this law), with an eye towards family reunification for a child with a stable family within one year or, alternatively, if a child didn’t have a safe home to which they could return, a permanent or semi-permanent foster home or foster-to-adopt scenario.

Apparently, making these recommendations made me public enemy number one within the State of Rhode Island’s Department of Children Youth and Families — especially with Mike Burk and Kevin Aucoin. Burk even went to Deputy Majority Whip Rene Menard’s office. Mike sat the three of us down where he tried to claim that my employment and subsequent lobbying at the Rhode Island State House was “risking the Department’s ability to find me a safe, permanent placement.” Representative Menard respectfully told Burk to “go fuck yourself” and that if he “ever had any hesitancy to find a child or teenager a safe placement then he should find a new job”. That was the end of that conversation — and Mike Burk’s attempts to get me to stop going to the State House to fight for basic rights such as schooling, healthcare, a bed to sleep in, and the right to work.

Burk ultimately had to work directly with Chief Judge Jeremiah and Governor Donald Carcieri to circumnavigate the entire Rhode Island General Assembly who apparently — while I had disappeared to Nebraska and to Florida where I was prohibited from communicating with any elected officials — were under the impression that I was in a safe foster home and thriving in Massachusetts. Huh?

Mike Burk told each legislator that asked — and there were quite a few, I later discovered — a little white lie that I was in a foster home an hour north while I was in fact in Nebraska and Florida being tortured, raped, beaten, prevented from preparing for university, and overmedicated to the point of dystonic reactions and inability to form complete sentences. Again, all of this will be addressed in further volumes of The Orphan Chronicles.

But before those unlucky days were to occur in late 2003 until mid 2005, I began to take pride in being an advocate for what I knew and felt in my heart was right. I felt a sense of pride when the Secretary of State called me into his office and informed me that I was youngest registered lobbyist in American history at age 15. Politics was an amazing thing, but it wasn’t the accolades that got me hooked. It was the legislative process and the different branches of government, which seemed to ensure that our democracy was the perfect system for our republic.

Politics for me was what a first cigarette must be for some people. I couldn’t put it down; once I tried one, I was hooked. Politics became my lifeblood, and I had found a purpose. And as former Providence Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci, Jr. had later taught me, politics was a blood sport — especially in Rhode Island — and if you did the right thing, knew how to poll the right people, and clearly articulate your platform, the voters would naturally join you or your cause as long as you could outwit and outsmart your opponent.

I had found a solution to my existential crisis. I began to think that the United States Constitution and the Constitution of the State of Rhode Island were two of the most divinely-inspired documents that had ever graced the eyes of man. I began to revere the Founding Fathers. My naivety was nearly palpable. I had complete faith in the separate functions of the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive, at both the State and Federal levels, and I was certain that checks and balances were inviolable and occurred on a routine basis. But alas, you were 15 once as well. Don’t hold it against me. Now I know better.

Yet, as I became this fierce, assertive force on Smith Hill I started to draw attention to what they really wanted to talk about: DCYF. People were asking me questions, and they were tough questions. One state legislator even tried to adopt me. Whenever one of the reps or senators would see me later in the evening walking the corridors of the State House jokingly ask if I had school the next day, I would say, “I wish!”

I tirelessly fought for the rights of kids in DCYF care from dawn until the wee hours of the morning in the Rhode Island State House hearing rooms, offices, back rooms, and rooms that the general public don’t even know about. That’s where legislators and civil servants try to legislate their way out of catastrophes that could risk the lives of Rhode Island citizens or, more importantly for some of them, sabotage their re-election campaigns.

Remember, the reason I had to leave my (rather lucrative state job as a 15-year-old) was because of my desire to wage “war with people who are trying to destroy kids’ lives” as I stated in a November 2002 Sunday Providence Journal column by Bob Kerr. Unfortunately, those people were stronger than I could have ever imagined and the wheels in their tiny heads were beginning to spin — they had to find a way to get rid of me.

As a newly minted lobbyist, I spent hundreds of hours in Committee hearings — including the Committees on Health, Education and Welfare; Judiciary; Oversight, and many others. I frequently ran into Mike Burk. His creepy balding head and butchered Yosemite Sam moustache occasionally half-glared at me. The fact that we were now wearing the same lobbyist badge annoyed the hell out of him. So did the fact that most legislators were actually taking me seriously and consistently complimented me on being well-spoken and presenting well-structured arguments in support of or against a piece of legislation.

While Burk would jealously glare — which other reps and senators even mentioned to me because it was incredibly harrowing — I would just focus on whomever was speaking and the contents of the bill that was being debated.

Burk rarely spoke if ever, and the reason for that is because he sucks at public speaking. I’m not being harsh, I’m just being brashly truthful about a man who has made his opinion about me known for the past 20 years and now I’m finally opining on him. He can’t properly start and finish a sentence, he has the most banal tone of voice one could ever stand to hear, and he never spoke with even an iota of passion or gravitas.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons DCYF is in the state that it’s in: there truly is a lack of enthusiasm, energy, and morale. Essentially Mike Burk on a Friday night. You can nearly hear the collective workforce of the Department sigh with one accord.

As a lobbyist, I didn’t make a dime. My clients were myself and my thousands of peers in DCYF care. They obviously didn’t pay very well, but I didn’t complain. Legislators would feed me with the leftover catering after the committee hearings before I would return to the DCYF headquarters at the ironically-named 101 Friendship Street and be transported to whatever shelter or group home had a spare bed for the evening. At least the practice of placing a kid in a different shelter or group home every night didn’t come with some fake, politically correct-sounding acronym like “SAFE: Sheltering Adolescents with Food and Education” because that would have been a blatant lie. It was the night-to-night program. And you would be given fast food. And you would sleep in a different bed every night surrounded by different people. Sometimes you would get hurt or abused. And that was your life. The only difference between me and everyone else in that program was that I went to the State House every day and tried to change that incredulous status quo.

Much to DCYF Director Jay Lindgren’s despair, I was a constant presence in the House and Senate lounges. I would wait two hours for a committee hearing to end just to catch a legislator for two minutes to plead my case for their vote on a bill to protect children and adolescents like me who were orphans through no fault of their own. I frequented the banquet halls and barrooms where legislators and power-brokers gathered for campaign fundraisers and continued my push to reform the broken system.

DCYF was broken 17 years ago in 2002, but it’s only as recent as 2018 that the public, governmental, and journalistic attitudes started singing the same tune: DCYF is in constant pandemonium and perpetual chaos, many of its employees are inept and incompetent, the social workers are assigned an inhumane number of cases, it removes far too many children from their homes and places them in far more dangerous situations than they left, and no matter how many more millions of dollars are appropriated as the Department goes overbudget each year, and no matter how many Directors are dragged in and kicked out as political pawns to shield the Governor, most recently Gina Raimondo, the cumulative results that DCYF provides to the community during each gubernatorial administration are consistently antithetical to accomplishing the Department’s actual mission of caring for children, youth, and families, or even making a modicum of progress. Things are getting worse.

Simply put, Rhode Island DCYF destroys far more families than it saves or preserves.

I saw it from the inside as a 14-year-old orphan who was shuffled around from shelter to shelter in the infamous night-to-night program and sat in on the legislative hearings discussing that unethical, abusive, and negligent practice. To hear night-to-night discussed in legislative theory, Departmental justification by Mike Burk, and then public testimony decrying the practice, and then to subsequently participate in the program in practice as an orphan in DCYF care, knowing that just hours before the elected officials of my state called it inhumane and abusive, was surreal.

I surmise that you can start to see that my childhood and adolescence was, to say the least, rather complex. My adulthood has been even more colorful. These experiences cannot merely be contained in one book. The conclusions that my colleagues and I reached while planning these writings essentially embrace a non-linear style of documenting my history that details different aspects of my life as an orphan and the stages thereafter in different volumes. This, the first, will deal with a case study of an out-of-state placement. I later lobbied for legislation that would prohibit this ghastly practice of placing Rhode Island orphans in places like Nebraska and Florida, and it was supported by the majority of the Rhode Island House of Representatives as signed co-sponsors. This is a rarity. But that bill never made it to the floor of the House. The sausage-making that is law-making and my efforts as a lobbyist will be discussed in another volume.

While I may no longer be the age of an orphan and am now an adult, I, like all adults, have had successes and failures. I do, however, still consider myself to be on that orphan-filled vagabond train of life, living with a sense of unrehearsed spontaneity. It is this Dickensian spirit that most orphans possess, this craggy magic bursting within us that pushes us ever further to the next train stop of life, listening for that whistle to blow until we are swept away in the next enthralling adventure.

The years have passed by quite quickly, and much to my detriment. I attempt to remain enticed by that bright, thrilling excitement of life, but with illness, tragedy, loss, and the shackles of the horrific abuse that I experienced as a child at the hands of the State, it is ever so difficult to live and not feel as if death is nigh, to breathe and ponder one’s last, and write and not be weary.

Accordingly, the best way to relay my experiences, to document my thoughts, to relay the facts, to share hilarious stories, to tell you about the sheer agony that I and so many others endured in the name of the State of Rhode Island’s DCYF, to compare what it’s like to starve naked in a locked “quiet room” in a facility hundreds of miles away from home is difficult, to say the very least. And then, a few short years later, to enjoy a meal with my Harvard classmates, among them the daughter of the president of the Seattle Seahawks, and another, a piano prodigy who played Carnegie Hall aged five, to have another shot at lobbying, to have regular pints of Guinness and meals with a Nobel Laureate, surviving a personal tragedy beyond the scope of my wildest dreams — the best way to communicate all of that is through several volumes.

How many? As many as it takes. We’re honestly not sure yet. And who knows. There may be other interesting things that I do in the meantime. But I highly doubt that, and I feel that the quiet life is now the life for me. I had my chance as a glow-worm, but now I’m just a regular worm.

Some volumes of the books in The Orphan Chronicles will be rather brief and rightly called microbooks. Some will be considerable in size (for example, the one on Rhode Island politics — if I called that a microbook, there would be many confused looks headed my way as the current draft is somewhere around 400 pages and not even close to its conclusion).

Some books will deal with tragedy and some will deal with triumph. I will finally reveal things that I’ve spoken about to very few. Some stories in the books will be about me. Some books will deal with poetry, art, literature, philology, and other things I’ve learned through the eyes of a Harvard student but more interestingly through the eyes of an ex-orphan Harvard student.

There will be stories about rich people, poor people, people I’ve loved, and people I’ve despised, and people I’ve despised and made up with. Many of you will be surprised to know that you’re actually on the nice list and not the naughty one. In fact, there are far more people on the nice list than than the naughty one.

And there will be historical figures that will be appropriately illuminated in these upcoming books. My writing will thus be critical or complimentary, but assuredly, either way, well-deserved. Needless to say, my icons will have special editions. Those other sinister foes of humanity will be lucky to get a blink.

Some of what I write in The Orphan Chronicles will be entertaining. Some of it will make you cry. Some of it may bore you. You may learn a thing or two about a subject or a topic. Some of it, perhaps this volume, may be written hastily so as to explain the abuse I suffered without putting me at risk of an increase in the amount of flashbacks and nightmares that I already experience on a near-daily basis. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a ghastly disease and I would wish it on no soul. Not even Mike Burk (even though he is vicariously responsible for the abuse, torture, and negligence I suffered in Nebraska and Florida). And some of it will be incredibly detailed for statistical accuracy and adherence to professional standards and best practices.

All of it, however, will be the truth. All of it will be worth reading. And that’s what matters most.

NICHOLAS ALAHVERDIAN

October 2019

Author of “Dreading and Hoping All” — Volume I of The Orphan Chronicles

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