The state Human Rights Commission has found that the Vermont Department of Mental Health illegally discriminated against an employee of the state psychiatric hospital. Commission investigators heard complaints from other hospital employees of color, who told of enduring racist attitudes and comments dating back more than a decade. One employee said he found the word “nigger” scrawled on the windshield of his car.
In her complaint, Ismina Francois, a mental health specialist, alleges that she was subjected to “repeated hostile, offensive and racist comments and actions by her co-workers and patients.” That racial harassment created “an intimidating, hostile and offensive work environment.”
In a unanimous vote last month, the Human Rights Commission, which investigates complaints of discrimination, found “reasonable grounds” that the Vermont Department of Mental Health “illegally discriminated” against Francois “on the basis of race and color,” in violation of Vermont’s Fair Employment Practices Act.
It is not uncommon for patients in a psychiatric hospital to exhibit often virulent racism, but the complaint by Francois focuses on fellow employees at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin, including a psychiatric nurse who used the term “colored” rather than “person of color” in a conversation — a comment the Department of Mental Health conceded was “unquestionably inappropriate in the workplace.”
Among the complaints the commission substantiated was a comment by a co-worker, who remarked about Francois, “Oh, I thought she got dropped off by the welfare bus.” When Francois requested that she be reassigned in order to avoid spending a night shift with a racist patient, her supervisor refused.
Staff interviewed by the commission’s investigator said they had heard patients use the racist term “nigger” on a daily basis.
Mediatrice Muzima, an African-American mental health specialist, said supervisors “did not take it seriously” when patients used the epithet. A supervisor said he would take the matter to a staff meeting, but the issue was never taken up. The constant use of the derogatory words “caused her to feel dehumanized.” She told the commission that she didn’t believe managers were responsive “to concerns about race and hostility and that there was no one at the hospital that she felt she could trust with a discriminatory complaint.”
Mental Health Commissioner Melissa Bailey said personnel actions resulting from the complaints would be confidential. Other documents indicate at least two employees were formally reprimanded for making racist comments.
“Every single allegation is investigated according to contract and HR provisions and we set a tone and expectation that any type of behavior such as this is not acceptable or tolerated,” Bailey said by email. “I can’t stress enough that we take this seriously and respond,” Bailey wrote.
Among the actions the hospital has taken have been “diversity training” sessions, conducted by the state Department of Personnel. It was to one of the training sessions, Francois and her lawyer, former Human Rights Commission executive director Robert Appel, said, that an employee brought fried chicken, watermelon and grape soda –- food stereotypically associated with African-Americans.
As Appel said in an interview, “If that’s not a ‘fuck you,’ I don’t know what is.”
The hospital’s former CEO Jeffrey Rothenberg is quoted in the commission report acknowledging that patients frequently use racial epithets.
“Mr. Rothenberg did not think the stress on African-American employees was any more prevalent than that on white employees working at VCPH, although he admitted he couldn’t recall any white employees being targeted by patients for their race or the color of their skin,” the report said, adding that “According to Mr. Rothenberg, patients yelled homophobic remarks and targeted staff on their weight as well.”
Assistant Attorney General Melanie Kehne, who is the mental health department lawyer, said,
“The department has been clear with staff that racial comments are unacceptable in the workplace, even when made out of ignorance.”
But Kehne said the question was not whether the conduct was acceptable, but whether under the law “these comments were so ‘severe and pervasive’ as to create a racially hostile work environment at VPCH.”
“This is a high legal bar — a very different question than employee conduct generally,” Kehne said. “And the department respectfully submits that this high legal bar is not supported by the record in this matter.”