HARTFORD, Connecticut — Connecticut's Department of Children and Families was ordered Friday to rehire an employee who'd been an outspoken critic of what he sees as the agency's racist attitude and was fired over allegations about his performance.
DCF did not have just cause when it fired the employee, youth services officer Cornell Lewis, arbitrator Susan Brown ruled. She directed the agency to reinstate Lewis at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown, the state's only secure facility for delinquent teenage boys. In Friday's ruling, first obtained by The Associated Press, Brown said DCF must also compensate Lewis for lost wages and change his record to instead reflect a 60-day disciplinary suspension.
DCF has 30 days to decide whether to appeal.
Lewis, who is black, has been involved in a number of protests over the years, attempting to draw attention to what he claims is a racist attitude at both the agency and the school. He is part of a discrimination lawsuit that is pending. He also writes a blog about the training school called "DCF Plantation."
Lewis said Friday that he feels vindicated.
"It is my hope to return to work soon," he said in a statement.
Lewis, 64, was fired a year ago for allegedly failing to supervise young people under his care in 2012. DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said last year that Lewis was found on a computer with two other officers looking at non-work-related content when a teenager was seriously injured.
Kleeblatt said last year that Lewis had failed "his most important duty and responsibility." In addition to firing Lewis, who worked at the training school for six years, the agency placed his name on an abuse and neglect registry, which Lewis is challenging in a separate lawsuit.
In her ruling, Brown questioned the seriousness of the injury, saying the state did not prove the teen suffered a concussion as the agency asserted. Brown also pointed out that other employees also determined to be inattentive received mild discipline, such as a three-day suspension for a youth service officer who watched TV for 25 minutes while a resident he was supposed to supervise one-on-one rifled through staff belongings.
"The failure to supervise in this case, standing alone, does not provide just termination," Brown wrote. She also determined that Lewis' use of the Internet, which he has acknowledged was a violation of DCF policy, also did not provide just cause for his termination.
Kleeblatt said Friday that DCF is reviewing the arbitrator's decision.
Lewis' attorney, Lewis Chimes, who is representing Lewis in two pending lawsuits, said the ruling was good for his client and the other workers at the training school because the case "presents a real danger" that DCF will misuse the abuse and neglect registry to bypass the grievance process with certain employees.
"He never should have been discharged in the first place," Chimes said. "I do believe it was retaliation for activism."