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St. Petersburg hospital, physician face backlash over Netflix doc

Hospital under fire for its decision to twice call state abuse hotline on mom of Maya Kowalski who later took her own life.
Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital has come under fire on social media following the release of a Netflix documentary Take Care of Maya.
Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital has come under fire on social media following the release of a Netflix documentary Take Care of Maya. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published June 23|Updated June 30

A Netflix documentary about a Florida girl who was taken into state custody when her parents brought her to the emergency room at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital has made the hospital the target of a barrage of condemnation on social media.

Venice resident Maya Kowalski was 10 when a judge ordered she be sheltered at the hospital and not allowed contact with her mom, Beata Kowalski, after All Children’s twice reported the woman to the state’s abuse hotline. After 87 days of no physical contact with her daughter, Beata Kowalski took her own life. Allegations of child medical abuse were never proven.

The family’s story is told in a new Netflix documentary “Take Care of Maya,” the second most watched movie on the streaming platform as of Thursday morning. The documentary has also been featured widely in the media with stories in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, the United Kingdom’s Guardian and Independent newspapers, and People magazine.

Maya Kowalski at a Sarasota County court hearing to determine whether her family's lawsuit against Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital can go to a jury trail.
Maya Kowalski at a Sarasota County court hearing to determine whether her family's lawsuit against Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital can go to a jury trail. [ Netflix ]

Much of the anger stirred up by the documentary has been directed at All Children’s, hospital social worker Catherine Bedy and pediatric physician Sally Smith, former medical director of the Pinellas County Child Protection Team.

All Children’s and Bedy are named as defendants in a lawsuit filed by the Kowalski family in Sarasota County. During the girl’s stay at the hospital she was videotaped for 48 hours and, on another occasion, stripped down to her underwear and photographed without the permission of her parents or the dependency court, according to court records. The case is expected to go to a jury trial in September.

Smith and the nonprofit that employed her were originally named in the lawsuit. They settled with the Kowalski family for $2.5 million, according to a story in The Cut. Smith retired from her position as medical director in July 2022.

More than 100 tweets have been posted on Twitter with the hashtag #takecareofmaya. They include calls for those involved to be fired or to lose their license. One includes a link to a Florida Department of Health webpage where patients can file complaints against medical providers.

A recently created Facebook page calling for Smith to be banned from working at any hospital has 550 members. Her profile has also been removed from the website of the Fifth Avenue Pediatrics clinic in St. Petersburg although she is still listed as a secretary and treasurer in the clinic’s incorporation records filed with the Florida Department of State. She could not be reached for comment.

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The outpouring of vitriol has led All Children’s to delete some comments posted to its social media pages and to restrict comments on others.

“Our responsibility is to care for our patients and the clinicians and staff who do exceptional work every day caring for the children of our community,” said spokesperson Danielle Caci in an email Thursday to the Tampa Bay Times. “In recent days there has been a significant increase in inappropriate engagement on our social media channels with patient and provider stories. Per institutional guidelines, which prohibit comments with foul or threatening language, we have temporarily disabled comments.”

A Facebook page calling for Sally Smith, the former medical director of Pinellas County Child Protection Team, to be banned from working in hospitals.
A Facebook page calling for Sally Smith, the former medical director of Pinellas County Child Protection Team, to be banned from working in hospitals. [ Facebook ]

The outrage is overshadowing a good news moment for All Children’s, which this week was named Florida’s top children’s hospital by U.S. News & World Report.

The U.S. News rankings are compiled from data submitted by children’s hospitals across the country and from surveys conducted with thousands of pediatric specialists. The criteria includes clinical outcomes, the level and quality of hospital resources directly related to patient care. In addition to its best in Florida ranking, the hospital tied as the seventh best children’s hospital in the southeast.

Tweets from All Children’s Twitter account promoting its best in Florida rating on Wednesday soon drew negative comments.

All Children’s has stood by its medical care for the girl and its decision to call the abuse hotline.

“Health care providers are legally obligated to notify the Department of Children and Families when they detect signs of possible abuse or neglect,” Ethen Shapiro, an attorney representing All Children’s 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.”