Under investigation after colleagues complained about unprofessional behavior and allegations from parents that she had wrongly accused them of child abuse, Dr. Barbara Knox left the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in 2019 to take a new position in Alaska.
But she soon encountered new accusations of wrongdoing. On January 28, 2022, she announced her resignation just days after the Anchorage Daily News and Wisconsin Watch co-published the latest in a series of stories about families and caregivers who said their lives had been upended after Knox wrongly diagnosed children’s illnesses or accidental injuries as abuse.
The team’s most recent story of problems in Alaska, reported with a grant from the Fund, mirrored accounts from families in Wisconsin. The story chronicled the travails of Emily and Justin Acker, a Fairbanks-area military family who said Knox in 2021 misdiagnosed their newborn daughter’s brain injuries as abuse. The Ackers lost custody of their two children for nearly a year.
Experts hired by the Ackers found Knox’s diagnosis of abusive head trauma was wrong and had ignored their newborn daughter’s serious birth injuries. A forensic psychologist found Emily Acker was no danger to her children — and a judge agreed.
It wasn’t the first time Knox’s medical judgment and workplace behavior had been scrutinized. In November, Providence Alaska said it had launched an investigation into Alaska CARES, the statewide forensic child abuse clinic Knox led that is operated by Providence Alaska. The probe was announced after a wave of departures that included every member of the medical staff except Knox. At the time, Providence Alaska said it was “aware of increasing concerns about the workplace environment” of the clinic.
Former clinic employees said that, for months, they complained to Providence management about what they described as bullying and unprofessional behavior by Knox, but received no response.
Wisconsin Watch and the Anchorage Daily News found at least a dozen instances in which Knox’s diagnoses of abuse were later rejected by child welfare authorities, the courts, law enforcement or other doctors. Some parents lost custody of their children at least temporarily, and multiple caregivers and parents were criminally charged on the strength of Knox’s testimony.
Providence Alaska declined to answer the reporters’ questions about the outcome or findings of the investigation, citing the confidentiality of personnel records.
“If her resignation is a cover-up from Providence to allow her to leave quietly like she did in Wisconsin, then they need to be held accountable for allowing the possibility that this will occur to more families in more states in the future,” Emily Acker said in a text message to the reporters.
Before becoming medical director of Alaska CARES in 2019, Knox left her position leading the Child Protection Program at American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, affiliated with the University of Wisconsin. She had been being placed on paid leave while the university investigated allegations she had intimidated and bullied colleagues who disagreed with her. Knox’s parting confidential settlement agreement, later uncovered by Wisconsin Watch, meant future employers, like Providence, and medical credentialing boards didn’t know the details of why she had left the University’s medical staff.
After Wisconsin Watch in 2020 told the story of a Mount Horeb, Wisconsin family wrongly accused by Knox of child abuse, other families and caregivers came forward to share similar stories. In an opinion column published by Wisconsin Watch, former Alaska CARES forensic nurse examiner Sarah Wood said Knox “repeatedly said with ‘99.9% certainty’ her medical diagnosis was the correct one, eliminating any other options. She often shopped from her long list of colleagues in the Lower 48 until she got her confirmation, discrediting and mocking those who disagreed or questioned.”
Wisconsin Watch’s coverage also included the story of Stacy Hartje, who spent eight years and $250,000 to clear her name after being wrongly charged with abusing a boy at her home day care in Mauston.
“Reading all the stories of so many she’s accused and hurt just makes my blood boil,” Hartje said in an email after Knox’s resignation was announced. Hartje’s lawyer, Stephen Meyer, told Wisconsin Watch that Knox’s resignation does not solve the problems she created. “Who gives back those portions of people’s lives that she took?”