Part Three in a three-part series.
Despite highlighting several videotaped depositions and recorded conversations between hospital staff and Maya Kowalski’s mother, Netflix’s Take Care of Maya is often necessarily one-sided.
At the center of the popular documentary is Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, recently recognized as Florida’s top pediatric facility. Attorney Ethen Shapiro said strict patient privacy laws prevent him or his client from discussing certain aspects of the ongoing legal dispute over whether Maya’s court-ordered caregivers falsely imprisoned and battered the then 10-year-old.
“However, should the Kowalskis agree to a complete release of Maya’s medical records and allow me to discuss her treatment with you, I can provide you with more information,” Shapiro wrote in an email to the Catalyst.
While a family attorney offered several rebuttals, what Shapiro provided suggests that All Children’s had myriad reasons to suspect the girl’s mother, Beata, of medical abuse in 2016. A judge eventually agreed and ordered Maya to shelter at the hospital for three months.
Beata, then 43, hung herself in the family’s Venice garage after 87 days without her daughter. The documentary shows a doctor’s text messages that suggest her suicide was further proof that Beata suffered from Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy (MSBP) – a mental illness where caretakers fake or produce medical symptoms in someone else, typically their child, for attention and control.
All Children’s immunity motion states that staff suspected Maya, now 17, was a medical abuse victim “from the first day.” It also notes her “absurd (redacted) regimen.”
Maya was 9 when she began experiencing a burning sensation in her extremities, and a Tampa specialist eventually diagnosed her with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). Symptoms include spontaneous and debilitating pain, muscle wasting and impaired movement. He prescribed high doses of ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic.
Maya’s parents also took her to Mexico for a controversial ketamine coma therapy, which the document states “carried a serious risk of death.” The girl and her parents said she improved for about a year following that trip.
Her father, Jack, rushed her to the hospital’s emergency room in October 2016 after a relapse. Here are some of “the most troubling” claims from the oft-redacted immunity motion excerpt Shapiro provided:
- Several doctors “personally observed that Mrs. Kowalski was aggressively hostile towards providers who disagreed with her, screaming and demanding the Maya be placed into a medically induced coma and have a pump implanted in her spine.”
- Beata once stated that “Maya was in so much pain, she ‘wants to go to heaven.’”
- Doctors observed that Maya “acted inconsistent with her and her mother’s claims of severe pain and disability … including standing up in her bed and sitting ‘Indian style.’”
- The girl told a nurse she was “tired of these lies.”
- “Maya was severely underweight and hadn’t eaten for five days before arriving … because she wasn’t ‘allowed.’”
The document notes that other facilities, including Tampa General Hospital, also suspected Beata of medical abuse. It adds that if the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), two circuit judges and a sheriff’s deputy “found probable cause to suspect abuse, the conclusion is inescapable” that All Children’s also had reasonable cause to suspect and report a potential crime.
“Most disturbingly is that Jack Kowalksi admitted to the police investigator that he witnessed the same concerning behavior from his wife that the medical professionals witnessed,” wrote Shapiro. “When he was with Maya, Maya had no complaints of pain; when Maya’s mother got home, Maya would suddenly be in pain.”
Shapiro, and the documentary, noted that Jack said he would insist that Beata leave the house if it meant his daughter could return home. According to another court document, Jack agreed that there is a psychological component to his daughter’s condition.
Graham told the father that doctors believed there was “zero reason” why Maya couldn’t walk. Jack replied, “I swear to God, I wish they were right.”
Nick Whitney represents the Kowalksis in their ongoing quest to seek compensatory and punitive damages against the hospital. He stressed that staff suspecting child abuse did not permit them to harm the girl.
Court documents state that a social worker and nurse held Maya down, stripped her to a sports bra and shorts and photographed her without consent. They also secretly videotaped the girl in her hospital room for 48 hours.
In the documentary, Maya said she had “good days and bad days” with CRPS symptoms. She, her father and family attorneys dispute claims that her condition improved during her stay at All Children’s.
Attorney Debra M. Salisbury said in the film that Jack acted like any other father would in that situation – he said what he thought authorities wanted to hear to bring his daughter home. Whitney noted that fathers are typically stoic, and mothers are more comforting, which would explain Maya’s duplicitous behavior around her parents.
“This detective came in and threatened Jack Kowalski with criminal prosecution … and that if he did not go along with the investigation, that he was going to lose his kids,” Whitney added. “And suggested to him that he had one of two choices – he could either choose to be complicit in the abuse or he could start agreeing with her loaded questions.”
Court documents show that Graham said her investigation “appeared to be moving towards a criminal case” until Beata’s suicide. However, she also said the “complex case” required several additional interviews before filing charges, and it wasn’t her job to assign guilt.
Whitney said secretly taped footage of Maya – hospital staff referred to her as “Ketamine girl” in text messages – showed her “languishing in bed.” He said officials didn’t release the tape during shelter hearings because it didn’t fit their narrative.
Shapiro also pointed to testimony from Dr. Carl Barr that suggests Beata was fraudulently filling prescriptions under the physician’s name. While the provided court document was heavily redacted, Barr testified that he had no recollection of prescribing the medication in question.
Whitney attributed that to information not aligning on an insurance spreadsheet. He said prescription control numbers show another doctor prescribed ketamine and noted no evidence supports the claim that Beata fraudulently filled any medications.
While nearly everything in Take Care of Maya is up for debate, some aspects are indisputable. Whitney said all parties agreed to have an independent pain management specialist at Brown University evaluate Maya, who confirmed the girl suffered from CRPS.
Maya returned to her father’s custody shortly thereafter, five days after her mother committed suicide. Beata left letters suggesting that she felt that was the only way to bring her daughter home.
A judge ruled the family could seek punitive damages for false imprisonment and battery following a lengthy appeal process. The public will hear more details when the case goes before a jury in September.
Whitney explained the two reasons why the family has fought for their day in court since 2019:
“First, to vindicate Beata and to validate Maya’s suffering, and all of their suffering, and hold them (All Children’s) accountable for that,” he said. “And second, which kind of ties into what the documentary has accomplished, is to shine a light on this conduct by the hospital and the mistreatment of Maya as a CRPS patient.
“So that hospitals – Johns Hopkins, especially – don’t do this again.”