HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Two Hartford state legislators have organized a public meeting so members of the General Assembly can hear more about allegations of racism and discrimination at the Department of Children and Families' juvenile detention facility in Middletown.
Reps. Matthew Ritter and Douglas McCrory said they decided to hold the informational session on July 2 after being approached by employees at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School. The meeting will run from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Legislative Office Building.
The meeting comes about eight months after a youth service officer at CJTS, activist and minister Cornell Lewis, waged a seven-day hunger strike to draw attention to what he called a racist attitude by mostly white supervisors toward employees at the state's only secure facility for delinquent boys. Lewis is one of four black workers who sued the child welfare agency in 2010 alleging that black employees have been the target of racially motivated disciplinary actions and are promoted at a lesser rate.
"I'm frustrated. Not just me, but the people that work there are frustrated because they want to get things done, they want to change the environment, change the culture," McCrory said. "I have confidence in the new commissioner, but sometimes, maybe it's not just the commissioner. Maybe it's just the whole atmosphere, the culture of the whole place that's poisoned."
In a written statement, a DCF said the agency's commissioner, Joette Katz, won't be attending the meeting.
"Because of pending litigation, it is against the advice of legal counsel for the commissioner to attend the hearing at this time. However, she looks forward to participating at some point in the future when the litigation is resolved," according to the statement.
A DCF spokesman said the agency is proud, however, that it is "one of the most diverse agencies in state government. We believe the diversity of our staff is a point of strength for our agency and have made cultural competence a priority for our work."
In October, Lewis' hunger strike took the CJTS Superintendent William Rosenbeck by surprise.
"I saw Mr. Lewis two weeks ago, and he didn't mention any of this to me," he told The Associated Press.
Rosenbeck is a named defendant in the lawsuit alleging racism at the facility. He said neither Lewis nor other workers informed him of any specific incidences of racism. Also, he said, when Lewis met with Katz in the spring of 2011, he spoke in generalities.
"There is nothing specific that he provided the commissioner that we could sort of look into. Since that time, I have spoken to Cornell, but have never been apprised of any situations that he has experienced recently or that he has brought forward to my attention or to the attention of HR that we could look into," Rosenbeck said.
Ritter, who has toured CJTS with Lewis, said he's uncertain how many lawmakers will attend the meeting, considering it is summertime and many people are out-of-state. He urged CJTS employees with concerns to contact their senators and representatives and ask them to attend.
"We're going to be there to listen and take notes and see where we can go from there," said Ritter, calling the hearing a "fact-finding sort of thing."
McCrory said lawmakers are limited in how they can address the workers' concerns.
"We can shine a light on it. We can show them that we're watching, we're monitoring what's going on. We can maybe set policy that could change some of the things out there," he said. "But a lot of those issues have to be done internally and have to be done through human resources."
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