In the twelfth annual edition of the Providence Phoenix's Best issue, we highlight people and organizations who are doing exceptionally good work — local heroes who often labor behind the scenes. Yet they are changing the communities in which they're based for the better. Regardless of what neighborhood you live in, all of us in Rhode Island are in their debt.
THE BIG PICTURE "We all have to work together on some level," Alston says.
PROTECTING, SUSTAINING, NURTURING
For a mild-mannered Quaker who grew up in Philadelphia, Jametta Alston has a powerful voice. The Office of the Child Advocate, an autonomous watchdog agency within the state system, was created in the late '80s in response to child fatalities that had occurred within the purview of the Department of Children and Families. Alston (and her skeletal staff of 5.7) are charged with overseeing the policies, procedures, and practices of DCYF to ensure that no child in state care is being harmed.
In the summer of 2007, just two years after her appointment to this office by Governor Carcieri, Alston and her staff filed a lawsuit against DCYF and the governor because of systemic issues relating to maltreatment of Rhode Island's children. The state's statistics were the highest in the country for maltreatment, both in foster care and in the children's own homes, the latter indicating wrongly-timed returns to unsafe environments.
Because the judge who originally heard this case has been ill, both the Child Advocate's office and DCYF have been forced to play a waiting game. Nonetheless, the lawsuit pushed DCYF to implement new procedures and to hire "family-connected community providers" to link families with services that could help them function better, whether that be housing, employment, food, health care, education, or transportation.
"What do we need to wrap around this family to make it strong and stable?" Alston pondered during a recent conversation at her Cranston office. "What are the natural resources and strengths of this family to make them stronger? At some point, there may be none, because mom or dad has burnt the bridges or they're from another state or country and they don't have that community."
Alston herself, at 52, has developed quite a community since coming to Rhode Island. She has been the president of the Rhode Island Bar Association, and she was a prosecutor for the attorney general's office for 10 years, where she established protocols in dealing with domestic violence and hate crimes in police departments around the state. From 2002 to 2005, Alston served as Cranston's city solicitor, while also sitting on boards as diverse as the West Elmwood Neighborhood Development Corporation and the Rhode Island Foster Parent Association.
By far, her hardest task in her current job is dealing with a lack of understanding on the part of the state legislature and the citizenry as a whole about the importance of helping children.
"If you don't deal with children — protect, sustain, and nurture them — at this point," she stressed, "you will have a larger problem down the road, because it will be harder for them to become productive, tax-paying citizens. We're always driving home the point that you have to take care of children's basic need for safety, stability, permanency, and nurturance.
"Now that the federal government is sending out stimulus funds, I'm hoping that people will try to direct funds that will save and help children," Alston continued. "I think people are sympathetic and they do care. But when they're faced with such overwhelming economic issues, it's hard to set that priority."
And now, more than ever, the issue that most affects the stability of children is, quite simply, poverty. One of the most significant factors is a lack of quality day care.
"Let's be honest, women can't stay at home these days," she noted. "You can't depend on someone keeping two jobs and sending the kids to a grandmother or an aunt — that doesn't exist anymore. When you cut child care, you automatically send a family deeper into poverty. People are short-sighted when they don't make that connection."
Alston is also concerned about new regulations that release children from the protection of Family Court and DCYF at 18. She wonders if some young people are ready to be out on their own, especially if they've never been in a family situation.
What can the ordinary person do to help in these tough times? Alston's primary answer is to volunteer to mentor children and youth.
"We all have to work together on some level," Alston emphasized. "Children need adults telling them: 'You know, pole-dancing is not an upwardly mobile career' or 'Being a pimp or a drug-runner does not have sustainability — it's not going to get you that house in the suburbs, no matter what they put on film, okay? You'll end up in jail or dead.'