"Take Care of Maya" follows the true story of Maya Kowalski and her family.
The state took Kowalski into custody after doctors said her mom made up a complex-pain diagnosis.
Kowalski's mom died by suicide. The Kowalskis are suing several people and entities involved.
Netflix's new documentary "Take Care of Maya" follows the story of Maya Kowalski's diagnosis of complex regional-pain syndrome, or CRPS, as a child and the family tragedy and court battle that followed.
Kowalski first began exhibiting muscle weakness and burning sensations after a severe asthma attack in 2015 when she was 9, The Cut first reported in 2022. After months of trying to figure out what was causing her symptoms, Kowalski's parents, Jack and Beata Kowalski, took their daughter to Anthony Kirkpatrick, an anesthesiologist and CRPS expert in Tampa, Florida, and obtained a CRPS diagnosis later that year. Two other doctors later confirmed the same diagnosis, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported.
According to Mayo Clinic, CRPS is a rare form of chronic pain that usually develops after an injury or a medical event such as a stroke or a heart attack. A person with CRPS begins to feel pain "out of proportion to the severity of the initial injury."
Kirkpatrick first put Kowalski on low doses of ketamine to treat her pain, and when that didn't work, he recommended the family go to another country where Kowalski would be able to have a procedure that put her in a five-day ketamine-induced coma. The family then traveled to Mexico for the procedure, and after some recovery time, the treatment appeared to put Kowalski in remission from her CRPS symptoms.
But in October 2016, the then-10-year-old girl expressed a relapse of symptoms, complaining of a severe stomach ache, and her family took her to Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital near the family's home in St. Petersburg, Florida. However, according to a lawsuit Jack Kowalski brought against the hospital, when the family informed doctors that Kowalski's CRPS had successfully been treated with ketamine and asked the medical team to up her dosages of the drug, doctors initially ignored their request.
"It seemed like they didn't want to listen to what we were trying to tell them," Jack Kowalski told the Herald-Tribune in 2019.
The medical team subsequently reported Beata for child abuse over Beata's insistence that Kowalski receive more ketamine to alleviate her pain, the Herald-Tribune reported. That report was quickly dismissed after child-welfare officials confirmed Kowalski's CRPS diagnosis.
But then Sally Smith, a physician with over 30 years of child-abuse pediatrics experience who was also the medical director of the child-protection team for Pinellas County at the time, began looking into Kowalski's health history. After reviewing Kowalski's medical records and speaking to Kirkpatrick, Smith diagnosed Beata with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a mental illness and form of child abuse in which a child's primary caretaker fakes the child's illness to gain attention for themselves. Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital refused to discharge Kowalski into the custody of her parents, and the state of Florida was awarded temporary custody of Kowalski.
Smith's determination that Beata was abusing her daughter and the events that followed changed the lives of the Kowalski family forever — and helped expose alarming deficiencies in court systems and hospital care.
Here's everything we know about where Kowalski, her family, and other key players in the story are now.
Beata Kowalski died by suicide after being separated from her daughter for months
Beata Kowalski was trained as a registered nurse at the time Kowalski was admitted to All Children's Hospital with her CRPS relapse in 2016. Less than a week after Kowalski's admission, doctors accused Beata of child abuse, and Smith diagnosed Beata with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, with Kowalski being put into state care shortly after.
Kowalski was only allowed supervised phone calls with her parents. In June 2023, Beata's husband told People that his wife had begun "deteriorating" due to the limited contact with their daughter.
Beata died by suicide in January 2017 at age 43, after spending months separated from Kowalski.
According to court documents seen by Insider, Beata voiced that she felt "depression, fatigue, and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness" in the months before her death.
"I'm sorry, but I no longer can take the pain being away from Kowalski and being treated like a criminal. I cannot watch my daughter suffer in pain and keep getting worse," Beata wrote in an email discovered after her death, People reported.
Less than a month after Beata's death, an independent court-appointed psychologist, Tashawna Duncan, filed her evaluation, which found there was "no evidence" to support the idea that Beata had faked her daughter's condition, with the courts.
Dr. Marc Feldman, an expert on Munchausen syndrome by proxy and other factitious diseases, told the Herald-Tribune that if Beata had the condition, he would have expected Kowalski to show "evidence for improvement sooner" than the three-and-a-½ months that she was in the hospital — but she kept getting worse.
Maya Kowalski now lives with her brother and father in Florida
Kowalski was released into her father's custody five days after her mother's death, People reported. She eventually recovered from her CRPS flare-up, but a court order prevented doctors from using ketamine to treat it. Her family told People that she used alternative methods, such as water therapy, and her recovery was "slower and more painful than it needed to be."
The now-17-year-old lives with her father and brother in Florida and has full use of her arms and legs, but her CRPS hasn't completely subsided, and Kowalski said the condition still keeps her up some nights in pain.
"I've already missed a lot, so I want to make the most of life now," she told People.
Kowalski uses daily intense exercise to manage her pain and has placed first in a figure-skating tournament, The Cut reported.
The Kowalskis are fighting the medical system in court
The Kowalski family filed a lawsuit against Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, Florida's Department of Children and Families, Smith, the social worker Catherine "Cathi" Bedy, and Suncoast Center Inc., the company that employed Smith at the time of Kowalski's hospital stay.
Together, the Kowalski family is attending the ongoing court proceedings.
"For us as a family to move on, we need to fulfill my mom's wish and fight," Kowalski told People. "I want justice for my mom."
According to the documentary, the trial is set to commence in September 2023.
The Kowalski family is suing the social worker Cathi Bedy, who they learned had been accused of child abuse in the past
"Take Care of Maya" shows Cathi Bedy, the social worker who was assigned to Kowalski at the hospital while she was in state custody, monitoring Kowalski's phone calls with her mother. Bedy declined several of Beata's attempted FaceTime calls with her daughter, The Cut reported.
Kowalski said in a court deposition featured in the documentary that in January 2017, Bedy forced her to take pictures in a bra and shorts before a court hearing, telling her that it was for the risk-management department. According to Kowalski, Bedy told her that if she didn't comply, she'd be banned from seeing her mother.
"I was crying and saying, 'No, stop,'" Kowalski wrote in a deposition included in a legal filing cited by The Cut. "But she wouldn't stop. Bedy pinned me face down and either she or the nurse took photos of me in my training bra and shorts."
The Kowalski family later learned that Bedy had previously been arrested and charged with child abuse in another case.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, in 2007 Bedy was accused of grabbing a boy's head at a Suncoast mental-health facility, causing him to fall, and then placing her knees on his chest. When the 10-year-old boy, who was a client at Suncoast, turned red in the face and said he couldn't breathe, Bedy, who was a manager at Suncoast at the time, replied, "Yes you can," according to an affidavit cited by the Tampa Bay Times. At that point, other Suncoast employees called the police. Bedy denied putting her knees on the boy in a deposition for that case, The Cut reported.
Bedy and a therapist at Suncoast were each charged with one count of felony child abuse, the Tampa Bay Times reported, but according to the Netflix documentary, those charges were later dropped. Suncoast fired Bedy after the incident.
Bedy's apparent LinkedIn profile indicates that she still practices social work in Clearwater, Florida.
Smith settled her lawsuit with the Kowalski family and recently retired
Smith determined that Beata had Munchausen by proxy syndrome, and because Kowalski had a ketamine treatment in Mexico for her CRPS, Smith assumed Kowalski's parents were "doctor shopping" for a diagnosis. Smith also had a reputation for removing children from parental custody at a high rate, according to "Take Care of Maya."
Per The Cut's report, there are at least 12 cases on record where Smith determined a child's caretaker was abusing them only for the child to ultimately be returned to their caretaker, for the charges to be dropped, or for Florida's Department of Children and Families to reverse their order separating the child from their caretaker.
Smith was at the center of another high-profile case in 2021, The Cut reported, when she determined that the former "American Idol" contestant Syesha Mercado's son was suffering from malnutrition as a result of neglect after Mercado brought her son to Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital for feeding issues. Mercado's son, and later her newborn daughter, were both removed from her custody because of Smith's determination. Mercado retained a team of attorneys to fight the state and was ultimately able to regain custody of both of her children by October 2021, after her story went viral with celebrities including Kim Kardashian calling attention to it.
Kowalski said in the film that Smith told her that her pain was in her head and that her parents made it up. Smith retired in 2023, and Smith and Suncoast settled their portion of the lawsuit with the Kowalskis earlier in 2023 for $2.5 million in damages, The Cut reported. She never experienced any formal professional consequences in the Kowalski case and maintained that her investigation into Kowalski's case, and all the cases in her career, had been properly conducted.
"My job is not to make mistakes," she told The Cut. "To my knowledge, I don't have any cases where I've made an incorrect conclusion."
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