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Workers in NV child mental health program say manager bullied them 'with nobody to help’

A supervisor built a culture of fear, retaliation and paranoia, 15 employees told The Nevada Independent. She still works for the state.
Eric Neugeboren
Eric Neugeboren
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They couldn’t believe she was back.

For years, employees in Nevada’s Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) had worked under a manager, Ann Polakowski, who they said fostered an environment built on fear, retaliation and paranoia. In interviews with 15 current and former employees who worked under Polakowski, many shared instances where she would scream at employees over minor issues and furiously seek evidence of wrongdoing so she could retaliate against people she didn't like.

Several workers filed complaints against her and participated in an internal investigation in 2021, and Polakowski was moved to another role within the division. Records and interviews show that agency leaders have been aware of complaints about Polakowski since 2019.

But last summer, she returned to one of her earlier roles — managing some of the same employees who had voiced concerns to investigators and agency leadership — after a request from the DCFS administrator and approval from the head of the Department of Health and Human Services. Though Polawkowski again changed roles in December, interviewed employees granted anonymity to speak freely about state workplace issues said they have lost faith in how the agency responds to allegations of workplace misconduct.

“Our trauma, our experiences, our tears, our sweat, none of that matters, and nobody cares,” a current employee said.

Since September, The Indy has interviewed 15 current and former employees (Polakowski has overseen dozens of workers at a time) to better understand her conduct and how agency leadership has (and hasn’t) addressed worker concerns. These interviewed employees — part of the hundreds of employees who do work ranging from child welfare services to immediate mental health care for Nevada youth and their families — agreed to take lower pay by working for the state, but described a workplace rife with fear, paranoia and a reluctance to report misconduct.

Some interviewed employees said they loved their work — but that they felt they had no choice but to leave. Four interviewees said they left their job directly because of Polakowski, and another two said they are on their way out because of Polakowski and agency administration, exacerbating the agency’s existing vacancy problems.

As of mid-January, the vacancy rate in DCFS was more than 35 percent, about 12 percentage points higher than the average state government vacancy rate. In the agency’s Southern Nevada Child and Adolescent Services program — which Polakowski has partly overseen —  the vacancy rate was around 48 percent.

In March, state lawmakers pulled $1.8 million in American Rescue Plan funding that was designated for DCFS personnel because of hiring challenges.

“If we're not able to retain good people in this profession, working for the state of Nevada, then those kids don't get the help that they need, and the community suffers,” a former DCFS employee said.

The Nevada Independent provided Polakowski with all of the findings that would be published in this story. She did not directly address the complaints about her conduct and instead listed her experience within DCFS, which began in 2003.

Since 2005, she has worked as a Clinical Program Manager II. In that role, she has helped lead programs in Southern Nevada that provide behavioral health care to Nevada families and children, including adolescents and children 8 or younger with emotional disturbance.

Interviewed employees acknowledged Polakowski’s achievements, but said they came at the expense of her employees.

“I can't say that she has not made accomplishments, but she does that by stepping on people,” a current employee said. “She throws people under the bus. She doesn't respect people. She's rude.”

Though she faced an internal investigation in 2021, it’s unknown if Polakowski has ever faced discipline because such matters are confidential

In December, Polakowski was moved to another role within DCFS after additional complaints surfaced, an agency leader said. In a statement to The Nevada Independent, Polakowski characterized the position change as a “joint decision” with agency leadership. 

Richard Whitley, the director of the Department of Health and Human Services (the parent agency of DCFS), said in an interview that he became aware of complaints against Polakowski in 2019, and takes responsibility for the decision to bring her back to a prior role, which was to oversee a program with decreasing output.

“The people who feel distrusting because Ann is still working, or still has a touch point to DCFS, I feel badly that people feel that way,” Whitley said.

Here are the different ways that workers in the Department of Health and Human Services can report misconduct.

The Nevada Independent is continuing to investigate workplace misconduct in state agencies. If you have a story to share, fill out this form with a Google account.

Director of the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services Richard Whitley speaking with Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno) in the Legislature in Carson City on February 8, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

‘These people have broken me’

“Mindy,” who asked to be identified by a pseudonym to avoid future retaliation, used to love her job working as a psychiatric caseworker for DCFS.

But over time, she noticed her passion dwindle because of Polakowski. She once had to take time off to move, and when she returned, she said Polakowski screamed at her and accused her of letting the agency down and not caring about her job. She was so stressed, she said, that she vomited for two days straight.

At the time, Mindy said she was working around 60 hours a week for DCFS between her day job and school-required training.

“These people have broken me,” Mindy said in an interview as tears filled her eyes. “I started to think that I wasn't a good therapist, or that I wasn't a good worker, and I'm a really, really good therapist ...  Lots of other people have been really good therapists too, and she's just run them off.”

Polakowski did not comment on this incident or others mentioned in this story.

Mindy is one of the four interviewees who provided mental health care for Nevada youth who quit their job because of Polakowski. 

It is against DCFS policy to show “discourteous treatment” toward a fellow employee, and at least three violations of that policy carry a minimum punishment of a suspension, as long as pre-disciplinary hearing processes are followed. Agency policy also prohibits “Misconduct of Supervisor because of prejudice, anger or other unjustifiable reason,” with three violations resulting in a minimum punishment of a demotion. 

Polakowski is a classified employee, a designation that is subject to “progressive discipline”, but someone can still be terminated without having been assessed lower-level discipline. Classified employees are typically in non-leadership positions.

Antionette Bryant also said she quit working for the state because of Polakowski.

She worked for DCFS for multiple years when she started experiencing “pure anxiety” before entering the office because of Polakowski. Her stomach would begin to hurt, and she would have to sit in her car to compose herself, she said.

One week, Bryant called out sick for two days, text messages show. When Polakowski requested she provide a doctor’s note, Bryant said she could not afford a doctor’s visit. Polakowski did not respond, and Bryant was later informed that she had to code her timesheet as “absent without leave,” according to a grievance that she filed.

Nevada regulations only require a doctor’s note after more than three missed work days, but if timesheet abuse is “suspected,” a doctor’s note may be required. The grievance appeal was unsuccessful, despite Bryant saying she had never had timesheet issues in the past and having nothing in her employment file that would impede future state employment, emails show.

She left her job soon after.

“I liked what I did. But when it came to me taking care of myself, that's first and foremost. If I'm not OK, I'm not able to do my job effectively,” Bryant said in an interview. “I felt like I was being bullied with nobody to help or protect me.”

Another employee said working under Polakowski almost drove her to suicide.

Rileigh Ard poses for a portrait outside her place of employment in Henderson on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2023. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Rileigh Ard’s position as a DCFS mental health counselor was her first job out of college. She said she would often have nightmares about messing things up at work and facing retaliation from Polakowski. One day, Ard said she saw a maintenance worker who looked like Polakowksi, and her body froze. She started panicking and sobbing. 

Toward the end of her one-year probationary period, Ard said she was fired. Because she was still under probation, she was not entitled to a reason. The next couple of months, she was suicidal, and she said she may have taken her own life if she had not been pregnant.

“To know Ann is to know fear,” Ard said in an interview. “You're constantly looking over your shoulder, you're constantly scared that you are going to do something wrong.”

‘Fear, gaslighting and preferential treatment’

Kristina Huddleston, a DCFS mental health clinician, also says she resigned because of Polakowski. On her last day at DCFS in 2019, she sent a 1,600-word email to Whitley and then-DCFS Administrator (and current head of the state’s ethics commission) Ross Armstrong about Polakowski’s conduct. Armstrong declined to comment on the email.

In the email, Huddleston claimed that two grievances she filed went unanswered and detailed one incident where she was reprimanded for spending a day completing paperwork — that she said in an interview received approval from another supervisor — even though she was recovering from a physical assault where she thought she was “going to die.”

“The purpose of this email is really not about the grievances, it’s about what it is like to be a worker in an agency that utilizes fear, gaslighting and preferential treatment as standard practices for management,” the email read. “If you speak up, you are a target. If you don’t agree with a policy, you are a target. If you make a mistake, you are a target.”

An hour later, Whitley responded over email and pledged to conduct “an unbiased investigation from outside of DCFS to identify deficiencies and ensure corrective action is taken.” During the next few weeks, one of his deputies tried reaching out to Huddleston by phone. When they did not receive a response, the inquiry was dropped, Whitley said.

Huddleston in an interview said because she sent the email on her last day of work, she no longer had access to her work email or phone numbers in her email signature. Huddleston had also reached out to a state human resources official with her personal email in the weeks following her departure about another matter, so she believes that if they wanted to reach her for an investigation, they would have.

There would be no investigation into Polakowski until nearly two years later. After Whitley held a division town hall on diversity, equity and inclusion in 2021, more people began to speak out, and multiple employees under Polakowski’s supervision met with Whitley personally to raise concerns about her behavior.

Whitley then launched an internal investigation. At the time, Polakowski stepped away from day-to-day oversight of the mental health programs but continued working at DCFS. The Department of Health and Human Services also created an anti-bullying policy around that time that prohibited “any behavior that is meant to intimidate, humiliate, or degrade another individual.”  

“We thought the agency finally had heard us,” a current employee said.

Several employees participated in the internal investigation, which are typically conducted by an agency’s own employees, though there is no statewide policy for how to run internal investigations.

An employee who worked as a DCFS internal investigator said in an interview they had concerns about how the investigations were conducted because investigators’ final reports were supposed to be editable.

Internal investigations are generally considered confidential under Nevada regulations, so it is unknown what the findings were in the investigation into Polakowski.

However, state regulations allow the subject of the investigation to review any notes, recordings and findings.

“It’s kind of scary from the perspective of retaliation,” the former DCFS investigator said.

Polakowski’s return

Last summer, agency leadership thought the DCFS mobile crisis response team needed improvements. They decided to bring back Polakowski.

The team, which Polakowski oversaw before changing positions in 2021, was “lacking strong and experienced leadership,” and seeing fewer responses and a lower quality of work, according to an email from Cindy Pitlock, the DCFS administrator at the time. Around that time, the Southern Nevada team had dropped to serving around 70 clients per month, lower than in past years.

The mobile crisis team provides support to youth and families suffering mental health crises, which can happen over the phone or by dispatching staff members to intervene and de-escalate the crisis. Its aim is to reduce the number of emergency room visits because of psychiatric crises.

Pitlock, who was not administrator when Polakowski was placed under investigation, said in an interview that she received approval from Whitley and the agency’s top human resources official.

Polakowski’s return last year angered and terrified employees, who said they have lost trust in how the division handles allegations of employee mistreatment, especially since they followed the proper protocols within the state’s systems by filing grievances and participating in an investigation. 

“It is so wrong,” an employee said.

Huddleston said last year that the decision was particularly frightening for employees who decided to speak out against Polakowski.

“The very people that thought they were safe and chose to speak out, they spoke out because they believed in a system,” Huddleston said in an October interview. “She's now their boss directly. And then they wonder why they can't hire people.”

Graphic by Kristyn Leonard

But in late December, Polakowski moved to a role where she is assisting with the agency’s response to the damning U.S. Department of Justice investigation that, in 2022, found the agency had over-institutionalized children with behavioral health disabilities, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Whitley said the move in December was because there had been additional complaints filed against Polakowski but said she was qualified for her new responsibilities. He also said there could be easier ways for employees to report misconduct anonymously, and that the department could do a better job informing workers of all of their options to report misconduct.  

Whitley said Polakowski has been “instrumental” in that role but took responsibility for her return to the mobile crisis team last year.

“I’ll own it,” he said.

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