This much, at least, is not disputed: Maya Kowalski was 10 years old when she arrived at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital with debilitating pain and vomiting.
Almost everything else about the Venice girl’s life in 2016 — her mystery disease and treatments, her relationship with her mom and the state’s decision to remove her from her family and shelter her at the St. Petersburg hospital for three months — is at the center of a fiercely contested lawsuit.
The separation proved too much for Maya’s mom, Beata Kowalski. After 87 days without physical contact with her daughter, the 43-year-old took her own life.
The complex and tragic story of Maya, now 17, is the subject of “Take Care of Maya,” a new Netflix documentary streaming Monday. The fraught tale that it covers is heavy with allegations from both sides.
Child protective investigators accused the girl’s mother of “doctor shopping” and child medical abuse, citing multiple medical treatments such as a trip to Mexico for a controversial ketamine coma therapy that isn’t legal in the United States.
The family claimed that All Children’s illegally prevented them from taking their daughter to another hospital. Court records show that All Children’s employees also conducted secret video surveillance of the girl for 48 hours and allowed a risk management employee who inappropriately touched the girl and who, with a nurse, stripped the girl to her sports bra and shorts and photographed her without permission.
The documentary comes as the Kowalski family’s four-year bid to win damages from the hospital is heading toward a jury trial in September that could cost the hospital millions of dollars. In addition to damages, the judge in the case has ruled that the jury can consider awarding punitive damages for battery and false imprisonment of Maya if it finds in the family’s favor.
”We’re not just seeking damages to compensate the family but to punish the hospital for what it’s done,” said Nick Whitney, the family’s attorney. “Hopefully, we can incentivize them not to do something like this again.”
All Children’s attorney Ethen Shapiro said the hospital stands by its medical care for the girl and its decision to call the abuse hotline. In a deposition, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Detective Stephanie Graham said that an investigation of Beata Kowalski “appeared to be headed toward a criminal case” until it was suspended following her death.
“Health care providers are legally obligated to notify the Department of Children and Families when they detect signs of possible abuse or neglect,” Shapiro said in an email. “It was (the Florida Department of Children and Families) not Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital that investigated this situation and made the ultimate decision that it was in the best interest of the child to be sheltered.”
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Maya’s pain, according to three specialists, was the result of complex regional pain syndrome, or CRPS. The condition causes spontaneous and often excessive pain from something as mild as a touch.
Treatment options included infusions of ketamine, an anesthetic that has some hallucinogenic effects and has been abused as a party drug. To make intake easier, the girl had a plastic tube inserted in her body. The procedure was done at All Children’s in March 2016, court records show.
Yet hospital doctors who examined Maya just a few months later were skeptical of the diagnosis and her mother’s insistence that her daughter needed a ketamine booster, the lawsuit states. Beata Kowalski, who was a registered nurse, also objected to a blood pressure cuff being placed on her arm and her daughter undergoing a scan, saying they would cause her daughter pain.
The mom’s lack of cooperation and hostility to doctors was a red flag to the hospital’s social worker, prompting a report of medical neglect to the state’s abuse hotline. The report was quickly rejected by the Florida Department of Children and Families, which verified Maya’s illness and the prescribed use of ketamine with one of her specialists, court records show.
Unhappy with the treatment of their daughter, the Kowalskis asked the hospital to discharge her so they could take the girl to another hospital. Instead, the lawsuit states, the hospital violated its own policies and refused to release the girl, telling the parents that would be against medical advice and that the hospital’s security team would prevent them from taking their daughter.
The hospital also contacted Sally Smith, the medical director of the county’s child protection team, and gave her access to Maya’s medical records, the lawsuit states. Under her direction, a second report was made to the hotline, this time questioning the mother’s mental health and alleging the child was receiving unnecessary medical treatment and medication.
Six days later, a child dependency judge approved the child being placed under the watch of the state and ruled that Maya be sheltered at All Children’s. Prevented from visiting her daughter, her mother suffered a panic attack with extremely elevated heart rate, dizziness and tremors and fainted at a hearing, according to the lawsuit.
Three weeks into her stay at the hospital, Maya was moved for 48 hours into a room with covert video surveillance, an apparent effort to prove whether the girl was faking her illness. The decision was made by a visiting pediatrician in consultation with Smith, court records show.
The taped observation was done without permission of either the parents or the dependency court. It shows the girl was too weak to reach a bedside commode without help.
“(Maya) could not leave and she was literally a captive,” Sarasota County Circuit Judge Hunter Carroll wrote in a 2021 order.
Hospital social worker Catherine Bedy is also named in the lawsuit for her part in the photographing of Maya. It took place in January 2017, just before a hearing where Maya would see her mom for the first time since she was taken into care. According to the girl’s affidavit, Bedy told the girl she wouldn’t go to the hearing if she didn’t cooperate.
“I was crying and saying ‘no,’ but she wouldn’t stop,” the affidavit states. “I felt abused. No one had ever forcibly removed my clothes before that day.”
The judge’s order also states that there were several episodes where Bedy “kissed, stroked or placed the child on her lap.”
“Quite simply, Catherine Bedy repeatedly battered (Maya)‚” Carroll wrote in his order. He said the hospital’s risk management office knew about her behavior, directed it and repeatedly allowed her to interact with the child.
Maya’s story has also raised questions about the state’s role in the story.
Smith, the child protective medical director for Pinellas, was employed by Suncoast Center, a nonprofit contracted by the Florida Department of Health. She and the nonprofit were originally named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Suncoast Center and Smith settled with the Kowalski family for $2.5 million, according to a story in The Cut. Smith retired in July 2022.
Whitney, the attorney for the Kowalskis, said Maya and other family members are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from the trauma they’ve endured. He also questioned why All Children’s both questioned Maya’s diagnosis and yet billed more than $500,000 for treatment of complex regional pain syndrome.
“It’s truly horrific and it’s the type of conduct you don’t expect,” he said. “They continue to suffer from this.”