Investigation Finds Evidence Of Widespread Racial Harassment At State-Run Hospital In Berlin

Feb 5, 2018

A new investigation paints a disturbing picture of workplace harassment at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin, where some African American staff members say they've been subjected to "offensive and racist comments" by co-workers.

Editor's Note: This story includes documents containing offensive language.

Ismina Francois, an African American woman who works as a mental health specialist at the state-run hospital in Berlin, alleges in a complaint to the Human Rights Commission that she was subjected to repeated racial harassment by co-workers.

The investigation that followed has uncovered numerous alleged incidents of racial harassment against not only Francois but other workers of color.

A closer look at the complaint

Screenshot of the Investigative Report
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As one African American employee was leaving work in 2007, for instance, he walked to the parking lot - the state hospital was at that time located in Waterbury - and saw that a racial epithet had been scrawled on his windshield by a colleague.

Co-workers, “for a lengthy period” of time, repeatedly called the same man “Chocolate Boy,” or “Little Bill,” in reference to Bill Cosby.

Redactions made by VPR to remove the names of individuals in the report.
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And on another occasion, this one just a few months ago, a female staff member called the man’s unit looking for him. When a different colleague answered the phone, the woman said, “Put the little black man on the phone.”

The woman later admitted to using the phrase, and apologized.

Citing those instances and others, the Vermont Human Rights Commission has concluded there are “reasonable grounds” that racial harassment is occurring at the hospital.

Robert Appel, the lawyer representing Francois in her complaint, says the harassment is “just insidious.”

"Being a person of color in this community is a struggle. Many of my clients happen to be of color and the stories I hear are hair-raising and consistent across a variety of workplaces." — Robert Appel, former director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission

“It’s not innocent in my view. It is done with malice,” Appel says. “Shocking as that report reads, I think it’s spot on.”

Francois, a single mother of two children, says the harassment she’s endured from co-workers have created “an intimidating, hostile and offensive work environment that interfered with her work performance.  

From the use of the term “colored people” by one of her co-workers, to the time when somebody remarked that she must have been dropped off by the “welfare bus” when she arrived at work, Francois says the harassment has been pointed and persistent.

Redactions made by VPR to remove the names of individuals in the report.
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Francois, through her attorney, declined an interview Monday.

The investigation that spurred Francois’ complaint has uncovered allegations of racial harassment directed not only at her, but at other staff members of color at the state-run hospital in Berlin.

The state's response

Commissioner of Mental Health Melissa Bailey says that, because litigation is pending on the matter, she can’t comment on specific allegations.

But she says she finds the report “extremely concerning.”

“We take this extremely seriously, and we are doing everything we can to protect staff,” Bailey says.

Attorney Robert Appel, right, says his client has endured years of racial harassment in her job at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

Bailey says some staff members have been already disciplined for violating the state’s workplace harassment policies — the man suspecting of writing the racial epithet on the African American man’s car has since been terminated.

And Bailey says work is underway to address the underlying factors that may have given rise to the problem.

“There’s a few bad actors, and the others are concerned that they want to step up and support their fellow co-workers," Bailey says.

A staff-wide mandatory diversity training session in fall of 2016, according to Bailey, was one attempt to address concerns about workplace hostility.

More recently, she says employees have come together to draft a civility and conduct policy.

The hospital has been without an acting CEO of late, but Bailey says she’ll be appointing a new leader soon. She says she’s also brought in two people from her central office to oversee operations at the 25-bed inpatient psychiatric facility.

“The combination of leadership that we have at the hospital right now is doing a tremendous job addressing concerns that have existed for some time, and just for a variety of reasons hadn’t been addressed to the degree that they needed to,” Bailey says. “So I’m feeling confident that things are getting much better. Is everything perfect? No. But we’re in a transition period that takes time to get there.”

According to the Human Rights Commission investigation, however, many staff members of color found the diversity workshop to be “useless.” And Appel says that his client hasn’t reported any substantive improvements at her job.

“She still doesn’t feel safe in the workplace. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen next,” Appel says. “And what was most troubling to me was even after she had enough courage to come forward to report this, and beg for diversity training, it took them months if not years to respond to that request, and then they didn’t do it right. They made it worse.”

The executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission wasn’t immediately available for comment on Monday. But Appel says the commission now has six months to decide whether to file a civil suit against the state for employment discrimination.

Appel says he and his client are hoping to reach a settlement instead. Francois’ primary request, according to Appel, is to be reassigned to a different post in state government.

“I take my hat off to [Francois] for being a strong young woman and saying, ‘I don’t deserve this,’” Appel says. “She’s had nothing but positive performance reviews. Why should [she] have to put up with this hospitality in order to make a living and feed [her] two kids?” Appel says.

Appel, a former director of the Human Rights Commission, is now a private attorney who often represents clients of color dealing with workplace harassment. He says Francois’ story is not unique.

“Being a person of color in this community is a struggle,” Appel says. “Many of my clients happen to be of color and the stories I hear are hair-raising and consistent across a variety of workplaces.”