Providence investigating Alaska CARES workplace complaints against medical director after ‘mass exodus’ of staff

A woman sits on the witness stand in a courtroom.
Dr. Barbara Knox left the University of Wisconsin and American Family Children’s Hospital after colleagues complained of workplace bullying and parents accused her of misdiagnosing abuse. Here, Knox is seen testifying on Sept. 14, 2017, at a murder trial in Huntington, W.Va. (Courtney Hessler / The (Huntington, W.Va.) Herald-Dispatch)

A multi-disciplinary child abuse clinic at Providence Alaska Medical Center called Alaska CARES has seen many workers quit or have their jobs eliminated, including its entire medical staff. And months after first hearing complaints about Alaska CARES’ workplace environment, Providence is now investigating.

That’s according to reporting by the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the nonprofit newsroom Wisconsin Watch.

ADN reporter Michelle Theriault Boots says the complaints centered on Alaska CARES medical director Dr. Barbara Knox.

Listen here:

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Michelle Theriault Boots: Dr. Barbara Knox came to Alaska CARES in the fall of 2019. She had previously been at a hospital in Wisconsin affiliated with the University of Wisconsin–Madison. And she had left there after complaints of bullying behavior, though it is not clear exactly what Providence knew about that when they hired her. So she becomes the medical director of Alaska CARES. It is really greeted with excitement, I think, by the staff because she is a very well known expert in her field. She’s presented at a lot of conferences, and she’s a well-known academic. And then, in spring of 2020, coronavirus hits, and people start leaving. So over the course of about a year and a half, all six members of the medical staff of Alaska CARES — that would be nurse practitioners and specially trained forensic RNs, registered nurses — all left.

Casey Grove: And the people that spoke to you for this story, what did they say specifically had been going on?

MTB: They described a pattern of what they perceived as aggressive or bullying behavior toward staff members by Dr. Knox, and also patterns that disturbed them related to a unwillingness, as they saw, by Dr. Knox to tolerate any kind of dissent for medical opinions. So they talked about cases where one person was supposed to work the case, and Dr. Knox kind of took it over, and came to a conclusion that wasn’t supported by other staff, and kind of ran with it. And those were the two major issues identified by the staff members we talked to as being a problem and leading to a work environment that, you know, several people felt they could no longer continue to work in.

CG: Have people expressed concerns about the kids that are going to Alaska CARES getting the treatment that they need?

MTB: Yes and no. I think some of the staff members we talked to did express concerns about the clinic under the leadership of Dr. Knox, but also really made a point to emphasize that they believed in their colleagues, the people doing the everyday work of the clinic. They just had real issues and concerns about the leadership of the clinic. And another thing I should mention is that for the people who left, they described making multiple, repeated complaints numbering in the dozens — some even thought maybe over 100 total complaints — to management, people above Dr. Knox in the kind of hierarchy of Providence, and really hearing nothing back for months and months and months. And then just maybe a few weeks or a month or two ago starting to hear a response. And Providence now says it is investigating the workplace environment of Alaska CARES.

CG: And you reached out to Knox herself as well, right?

MTB: Sure, multiple times we reached out to Dr. Knox and she did decline to comment through a Providence spokesperson. You know, it must be said that we did talk to people who are major supporters of Dr. Knox who say that she’s a high-caliber professional who was bringing a new level of rigor and professionalism to Alaska. One in particular, a child advocate in the nonprofit world, said that Dr. Knox may have offended people, but she was taking steps to learn and to do whatever she could to do her job to the best of her ability. One thing I’d like to mention is that we produced this story in collaboration with a nonprofit newsroom in Wisconsin called Wisconsin Watch. And they are continuing to look into Dr. Knox’s history in Wisconsin and a number of cases in which she made a medical determination of child abuse that was later questioned or overturned by some entity. And so they’re continuing to look into that, and I know that they have heard from one or two folks in Alaska, and I think we’re wondering if we’ll hear from more.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.

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