Part Two in a series.
Netflix’s Take Care of Maya, the platform’s second-most streamed movie, continues garnering headlines from Tampa Bay to the United Kingdom with a gripping plotline seemingly ripped from a network medical drama.
As a documentary, however, Take Care of Maya revolves around a true story with real-life consequences. A judge forced 10-year-old Maya Kowalksi to remain at St. Petersburg’s All Children’s Hospital for three months due to child abuse allegations, and attorneys from both sides are now engaged in a fierce and lengthy legal battle.
Her mother, Beata, hung herself in the family’s Venice garage 87 days after she last saw her daughter. The family and their attorneys say Maya, now 17, was falsely imprisoned and battered.
Ethen Shapiro represents the St. Petersburg-based institution and ardently defended his client in an email to the Catalyst.
“As to your question regarding the accuracy of the Netflix movie, it contains numerous false assertions,” Shapiro wrote. “My client stands behind the compassionate and appropriate care that was provided by our staff in this case.”
Maya was 9 when she began experiencing a burning sensation in her extremities. A Tampa anesthesiologist eventually diagnosed her with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), with symptoms including spontaneous and debilitating pain, muscle wasting and impaired movement.
He prescribed high doses of ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic used in veterinarian applications, as an illicit street drug and, more commonly in recent years, as an alternative to traditional painkillers. While Maya showed improvement after a controversial ketamine coma therapy in Mexico, she relapsed about a year later.
Her father, Jack, a retired firefighter, rushed her to All Children’s emergency room in October 2016 after Maya experienced debilitating stomach pain. The CRPS diagnosis, ketamine treatments and her mother’s behavior led hospital staff to suspect child abuse.
Her mother, Beata, was a registered nurse who meticulously documented the family’s quest to alleviate their daughter’s suffering. The documentary relies heavily on those recordings and court depositions.
Shapiro provided a seven-page excerpt from the hospital’s immunity motion that states caregivers from Tampa General Hospital also suspected Maya suffered from medical abuse – or Munchausen’s syndrome. The redacted documents highlight how Beata was uncooperative, insisted Maya receive the drug and was a registered infusion nurse “with access to IV (intravenous) medications and supplies.”
All Children’s staff and social workers believe Beata had Munchausen syndrome by proxy. That is a mental illness where caretakers fake or produce symptoms in someone else, typically their child, for attention and control.
A judge eventually agreed with those assertions, stripped the Kowalksis of custody and ordered Maya to shelter at All Children’s Hospital. While there, court documents state that a social worker and nurse held the girl down, stripped her to a sports bra and shorts and photographed her without parental permission, despite her pleas for them to stop.
The hospital’s social worker, Catherine Bedy, also admitted in depositions that she hugged and touched Maya affectionately and placed the girl on her lap. She often prevented Beata from talking with her daughter, and Maya claimed that Bedy said she would adopt the then 10-year-old.
In addition, the Kowalskis realized local law enforcement had previously arrested Bedy for child abuse after an online search. While prosecutors later dropped the charges, that increased Beata’s disdain for her daughter’s caregivers.
The family attorney
Family attorney Nick Whitney told the Catalyst that neither the state nor the Kowalksis knew All Children’s also secretly videotaped the girl in her hospital room. A judge ruled that the family could seek compensatory and punitive damages for false imprisonment and battery.
Whitney said the hospital’s immunity claim is at the heart of the problem.
“That immunity only extends so far,” Whitney added. “You can’t photograph a girl semi-nude while she’s screaming and objecting. You can’t record her secretly for 48 hours to prove she’s faking it, and you can’t have a social worker physically torment her just because when she first came to your hospital, you reported her mother as a suspected abuser.”
He noted that so many other families contacted the attorneys with similar stories they had to create a separate intake line and email account to triage a deluge of calls. Whitney said they began representing other unsubstantiated child abuse claims – including one involving All Children’s Hospital – before the documentary made national headlines.
He said officials have “weaponized” the child welfare system against parents. Florida outsources those responsibilities to private organizations, and documentary statistics show officials remove kids from homes in Pinellas County at 2.5 times the state average.
After the Department of Children and Families (DCF) rejected the hospital’s first medical neglect report, officials contacted Dr. Sally Smith. She is a former medical director with St. Petersburg-based Suncoast Center and is at the center of many of the Kowalskis’ – and many other families highlighted in the documentary – allegations.
Smith ordered the second report alleging medical abuse. Whitney said she directed Maya’s secretive videotaping to, unsuccessfully, prove her allegations.
He said “the most damning” aspect is that when the video showed the girl was indeed suffering throughout the 48-hour observation, Smith and staff hid the tape.
Whitney said it was withheld from the custody judge and parents “as if the video never existed.” Beata fainted when the court ordered that she could no longer see her daughter.
He also noted that a state-appointed neuropsychologist who evaluated Maya two weeks into her three-month stay said a pediatric neurologist should assess the girl’s CRPS diagnosis. Whitney said hospital officials admitted to disregarding that recommendation and deferred to Smith’s opinions.
In the documentary, one of Maya’s specialists said that he called Smith, explained the diagnosis and offered further evidence for the CRPS diagnosis. He told her the investigation would create a “catastrophic outcome for the child” and permanently harm the entire family.
She did not include that in her report two days later. In a taped deposition, Smith said, “I presented the information to the best of my professional ability.”
According to public records obtained by The Cut, the Suncoast Center and Smith settled out of court with the Kowalksis for $2.5 million. She retired in July 2022.
Suncoast Center officials could not be reached for comment.
“They’re (the hospital) caught in a lie,” Whitney said. “Because they treated Maya for CRPS and billed her for that treatment the entire time she was in there, all while telling the court that she doesn’t have it.”
Shapiro said strict privacy laws prevent him from sharing additional records and statements contradicting the documentary’s allegations.
Part Three will explore court documents highlighting a criminal investigation, alleged prescription fraud, Beata’s death and the ongoing legal battle.
Read Part One here.