The Nicholas Alahverdian Case Study: State-sponsored torture in foster care

The first series of posts in the new Human Services Policy Newsblog will revolve around efforts to reform different state child welfare systems, a priority in the United States and around the world. Efforts to protect the well-being of children in state care are unarguably important and I will attempt to shed light on the issues that prevent an effective child welfare system from being implemented.

By Paul Richardson of Human Services Policy Newsblog

Nicholas Alahverdian, a young former government employee, has been the nucleus of media attention concerning the child welfare system in Providence, Rhode Island known as the Department of Children, Youth and Families (the DCYF). He sure did have a difficult experience, and his story is well-cited in media sources both locally and nationally. I chose Nicholas because he has the unique experience of not only having been in state care but also working for the state government — at the same time! Nicholas later became a lobbyist — the youngest in the history of the state.

Nobel Laureate Poet Seamus Heaney and Nicholas Alahverdian (Creative Commons License)

I have not yet spoken with Nicholas and have never met him, but he is incredibly well-spoken as seen in his legislative committee speeches and writings on the issues surrounding child welfare. He seems to have had a colorful life — he has done everything from work in the news industry to start a lobbying firm. He was a student Harvard University and has been working in state politics since an age when most young people are concerned about school and sports. Nicholas took it to the next level.

But his childhood was a patchwork of inconsistency. He was placed in abusive housing. He was prohibited from making telephone calls or sending letters to the senators and representatives with whom he worked with at the Rhode Island Statehouse. Nicholas was sent to Florida and then to Nebraska. It was disclosed in a lawsuit, to be discussed later on in my series, that the facility in each of those states were shuttered prior to and after his attendance there.

This is from the about.me of Nicholas Alahverdian:

Nicholas Alahverdian is a Harvard-educated scholar and political activist. As an adolescent, Nicholas survived torture and abuse inflicted upon him by the Rhode Island government under the direct orders of a chief judge and a governor following his political activism against them while Alahverdian was an employee of the Rhode Island House of Representatives.
Nicholas was sent to two facilities far from New England that had extensive records of torture, abuse, and negligence. He was forced to remain in these abusive facilities until his 18th birthday and was not allowed to contact anyone, go to school, or prepare for adulthood. Alahverdian survived the torture, sued his abusers, settled in court, and studied at Harvard University.
The primary scholarly focus of Nicholas Alahverdian is the intersection of philology, rhetoric, and politics. He has been featured in The Providence Journal, NPR, BBC, NBC, CBS, and ABC News as well as The Buddy Cianci Show, The Boston Globe and countless other media entities.

What happened to Nicholas should not happen to anyone. A few years ago, I reached out to Providence Journal reporter Bob Kerr about an article I read, and it is only fitting that my advocacy and blog be started with this post, as it is what is provoked my interest and activism. I thank Bob for speaking with me a few years ago.

Anyway, here is the article: Look for new posts soon

As originally published in April 2012 in The Providence Journal

Nicholas Alahverdian: A hard lesson in what a state can do to a kid

It’s hard to understand why my friend Nicholas ‍Alahverdian‍’‍s story hasn’t resonated with more people and led to more needed changes. Perhaps it’s because he has been too much his own advocate, worked the State House too diligently, been too articulate in defining the state’s failures.

One thing is certain: What happened to ‍Nicholas Alahverdian in the name of child protection should never happen to any kid ever. He was denied a substantial chunk of his childhood. He was put in night-to-night placement by the Department of Children, Youth and Families, a practice so hideously abusive and stifling that it would seem better fit to a Charles Dickens novel than to 21st century Rhode Island.

Then, for reasons never really explained, he was shipped far out of state to facilities in Florida and Nebraska that were nightmares. There was serious abuse, he said.

Think about it. A kid who wanted nothing more than to go to school is put in DCYF care because his family can’t take care of him. And he is not only denied his education, he is put in places far away where he is physically abused, has no chance to go to school, and in some cases is shut off from outside contact. Remember, there is no crime here. There is just the extreme misfortune of being placed in state care and being denied a voice in his future.

He has always suspected that he was sent out of state because he was so outspoken about the horrors of night-to-night placement. He had been a page and an aide at the Rhode Island State House before his exile, and he was not reluctant to point out the hard lessons learned from his DCYF experience.

Through intelligence and sheer will, he is now at Harvard University. He knows that Cambridge is a much healthier place for him to be than anywhere in Rhode Island. But he points out he is an undergraduate at 24 because of the years that were taken away from him. He has suffered academically and socially.

And there is unfinished business in Rhode Island. There is a bill sponsored for the second time on his behalf by Representative Roberto DaSilva of East Providence that would restrict out-of-state placement by DCYF to cases in which there is absolutely no one in Rhode Island who can provide the required services. DaSilva calls it common sense legislation that would save money and even create jobs.

And there is the lawsuit brought by ‍Alahverdian in federal court against the State of Rhode Island, DCYF and several of its officials and former Family Court Chief Judge Jeremiah Jeremiah, who ordered the out-of-state placements. There has yet to be a ruling in the case by U.S. District Judge John J. McConnell.

But regardless of what happens in federal court or at the State House, ‍Alahverdian has left his mark. Night-to-night placement has been ended forever. And in the Florida facility where ‍Alahverdian experienced so much abuse, is no longer used by DCYF. ‍Alahverdi‍‍an, I have to believe, had something to do with those changes.

If nothing else, he says, he would like an apology from the state. Surely, he and a bunch of other young survivors deserve one. The person delivering the apology would probably have to come from those state officials who agree that it is bad public policy to screw up kids’ lives.

About me: Paul Richardson is a retired auditor and the creator of Human Services Policy News Blog. I decided to begin working with different states to see what advice I could give and identify solutions to, what seem to be, problems that have been around for decades. My wife Mary and I have four children and three grandchildren. I enjoy fly fishing, hunting, and am involved in Rotary Club and have been a Boy Scouts scoutmaster. In my spare time I work at my brother’s apple orchard, something we’ve had since my dad bought it forty years ago. I hope you enjoy this effort and look forward to seeing what we can learn from one another.