The second-most watched movie on the world’s most popular streaming platform is a complicated and tragic story involving mysterious conditions, child abuse procedures, legal drama and suicide.
At the center of it all – Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
Netflix released Take Care of Maya June 19. The documentary follows Maya Kowalski, who was 9 when she began experiencing a burning sensation in her extremities.
Following controversial treatments, improvement and a subsequent relapse, a 10-year-old Maya ended up at St. Petersburg’s All Children’s Hospital in October 2016. Child abuse allegations followed, and state officials assumed custody of the child.
They forced Maya to live at the hospital for three months. Her mother, Beata, an immigrant from Soviet-controlled Poland and a nurse, became increasingly despondent over the process and scrutiny.
After 87 days without seeing her child, Beata committed suicide. She was 43 years old.
“I think the note that Beata left for Judge (Lee) Hayworth makes it pretty clear that she wanted her child to be free from that hospital,” said family attorney Debra M. Salisbury toward the documentary’s conclusion. “She wanted to make sure that her child got out of there, and she didn’t see any other way out.”
Maya returned to her father’s custody five days after he found her mother hanging in a Venice garage.
As a registered nurse, Beata incessantly documented the family’s struggle to find a cause and treatment for their daughter. Take Care of Maya director Henry Roosevelt relied heavily on those audio and video recordings – along with those made by All Children’s – throughout the documentary.
The filmmakers also utilized court depositions to help narrate the story. They began following the saga four years ago, as the Kowalskis embarked on an expansive lawsuit against the hospital.
A judge ruled that the family could seek compensatory and punitive damages following a lengthy appeal process. The case will go before a Jury in September.
Maya and her father, Jack, a retired firefighter, claim the hospital falsely imprisoned and battered the girl. Court records, and the documentary, show that All Children’s staff secretly videotaped Maya for 48 hours without consent.
A social worker previously charged with child abuse admitted to hugging and placing the girl on her lap. With the help of a nurse, Catherine Bedy held Maya down, stripped her to a sports bra and shorts and photographed her without parental permission for “risk management” purposes.
“I was screaming, crying, yelling ‘no,'” said Maya, now 17. “I could not have made it any more clear.”
The documentary includes several videotaped depositions with hospital staff. However, they declined subsequent interviews, citing privacy laws and a lack of parental permission.
An emailed statement to the Catalyst reads as follows:
“Our priority at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital is always the safety and privacy of our patients and their families. Therefore, we follow federal privacy laws that limit the amount of information we can release regarding any particular case.
“Our first responsibility is always to the child brought to us for care, and we are legally obligated to notify the Department of Children and Families (DCF) when we detect signs of possible abuse or neglect. It is DCF that investigates the situation and makes the ultimate decision about what course of action is in the best interest of the child.”
Munchausen syndrome by proxy?
Maya came to All Children’s after Dr. Anthony Kirpatrick, a Tampa anesthesiologist, diagnosed her with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). Symptoms include spontaneous and debilitating pain, muscle wasting and impaired movements.
His treatment protocol included high doses of ketamine, a painkiller traditionally used for veterinary purposes or as an illicit drug called “Special K.” A dissociative anesthetic, some emergency room doctors use it to “temporarily separate you from reality while blocking pain.”
At Kirpatrick’s behest, the Kowalskis took Maya to Mexico for a controversial ketamine coma therapy prohibited in the United States. She showed improvement for about a year.
However, Maya began experienced debilitating stomach pain in October 2016, and her father rushed her to the emergency room. While All Children’s staff initially administered ketamine, doctors later became skeptical of the CRPS diagnosis and Beata’s insistence that Maya continue the treatment.
In addition, nurses and doctors called Beata “belligerent,” “pushy,” and “uncooperative” in depositions. Those red flags prompted a report to DCF.
Hospital staff believed the mother had Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP), a mental illness where people fake or produce symptoms in someone else, usually their child. Experts say those with MSBP are typically mothers, have medical skills, seem devoted to their children and need to feel powerful or in control.
All characteristics that arguably describe Beata.
Ethan Shapiro, a Tampa-based attorney for All Children’s, told the Catalyst in an email that he was also limited to what he could say “due to strict federal patient privacy laws.” He provided hundreds of pages of court documents – with many aspects excluded from the documentary – and context.
“First and foremost, the court in this case has already determined that JHACH’s (John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital) medical providers had reasonable cause to suspect Maya Kowalski’s mother was abusing her,” Shapiro wrote. “When you read the seven-page motion, you will see that … the same concerns were also voiced from numerous medical providers at local and world-renowned medical centers, names that you will likely recognize.
“All of this occurred prior to Maya Kowalksi coming to JHACH.”
However, DCF rejected the hospital’s first report of medical neglect after it verified Maya’s diagnosis and prescribed ketamine use with one of her specialists. The Kowalskis asked the hospital to discharge their daughter so they could seek care elsewhere.
All Children’s officials refused and contacted Dr. Sally Smith, a former medical director with St. Petersburg-based Suncoast Center, Inc.
Florida outsources its child welfare responsibilities to private organizations, and Pinellas County utilizes the nonprofit.
Smith ordered a second abuse report, alleging medical abuse surrounding Maya’s ketamine treatments and her mother’s mental health. Six days later, a judge ruled that the state would assume custody of the girl, who would remain at All Children’s.
Beata fainted at the realization that she could no longer see her daughter. The court ordered a psychiatric evaluation – which Shapiro noted was paid for by the Kowalskis’ attorney.
“The findings were that she (Beata) did not have Munchausen syndrome by proxy,” Salisbury said in the documentary. “But she had an adjustment disorder with depressed mood from having her child taken away. And naturally, by being attacked by the system.”
Read Part 2 here.