Harvard junior Nicholas Alahverdian is not your typical lobbyist. Lobbyists often have long-standing connections with lawmakers and years of experience working in legislative corridors to advance their agendas. But beginning as a teenager, Alahverdian, who is now 24, saw lobbying as a necessity.
Alahverdian was born to abusive and alcoholic parents and ended up in the custody of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families. But Alahverdian said DCYF, which provides services to children who came from troubled backgrounds, deprived him of medical care and ignored his reports of abuse. Alahverdian resorted to political activism and became a legislative aide in the Rhode Island House of Representatives at the age of 15.
"I was always fascinated by the political process and its ability to be a net for Rhode Islanders to force social justice," Alahverdian said.
A bill recently introduced in the House last month by state Rep. Roberto DaSilva, D-East Providence and Pawtucket, would give children the ability to contact physicians, attorneys and others who work for child welfare while in the care of DCYF. DaSilva's bill also sets standards for ensuring that children receive "humane and dignified treatment" while in state custody. DaSilva said the bill is necessary to provide for "a better quality of life for children" in light of the abuse suffered by Alahverdian.
As a teenager arriving at the State House covered in bruises and cuts, Alahverdian said he notified lawmakers of the treatment he had received while in state custody. But neither the legislators nor DCYF responded to his accusations of negligence, instead transporting him around the state in a "night-to-night" placement program — a common practice at the time, Alahverdian said. Alahverdian found himself sleeping at different facilities in Providence, Cranston and Central Falls on a nightly basis.
"DCYF did not take into consideration that I desired a stable home," Alahverdian said. "But when I appraised lawmakers of what was going on in these households, I began to be looked at by some as a lobbyist."
In response, Alahverdian resigned from his job as an aide at the State House and became a lobbyist. He founded a group called NexusGovernment to champion reforms to Rhode Island's child welfare services.
But he said political authorities did not react to his activism favorably. In 2002, DCYF placed him in Nebraska and then in Florida. During this time, Alahverdian said he was not allowed to contact the police, attorneys, courts or anyone else. Both out-of-state facilities were subsequently shut down for abuse and neglect.
Alahverdian returned to Rhode Island when he aged out of the children's welfare system at 18. He has since filed suit against state officials for knowingly allowing instances of abuse to continue and for conspiring to prevent him from working with lawmakers to reform the system.
DCYF did not return The Herald's requests for comment.
DaSilva's bill would force courts to go through a step-by-step process to ensure children are kept in Rhode Island facilities before resorting to out-of-state placement options. "The way they've been doing the placement of children outside the state, I think, is fundamentally wrong," DaSilva said.
The bill is currently under consideration by the House Judiciary Committee but has not moved to a floor vote.
"I have no idea why this bill hasn't made it out of committee," DaSilva said. "It doesn't cost us a dime. In fact, it'll save us money."
With more children kept at in-state facilities, millions of tax dollars will be saved from outsourcing services to contractors, and more Rhode Islanders will keep their jobs, DaSilva said.
Alahverdian said a primary obstacle to the bill's passage is the view of some union officials that the legislation portrays social service employees as "inept and incapable of meeting their responsibilities." He said he feels DCYF employees are trying to do their jobs but are overburdened, which he hopes will no longer be the case if DaSilva's bill clears the State House.
Alahverdian said he hopes DCYF makes the changes necessary to "ensure the things that have happened to me won't happen to anyone else."