A Hard Watch

Take Care Of Maya Uncovers A Systemic Misdiagnosis Of Child Abuse

The Netflix documentary follows the Kowalski family, whose lives were shattered after their mom was falsely accused of Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

Maya Kowalski of the documentary "Take Care of Maya."
Courtesy of Netflix

Maya Kowalski was around 10 years old when she started experiencing strange health symptoms. It started with a respiratory infection, then she felt pain to the touch, and her legs began to turn in. Eventually, she couldn’t walk.

“I remember hearing her crying throughout the night in extreme pain, but we had no answers,” her father, Jack Kowalski, says in the Netflix documentary Take Care of Maya, which details his family’s harrowing experience following a misdiagnosis of child abuse.

In 2015, Florida native Maya was determined to have advanced complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) by anesthesiologist Dr. Anthony Kirkpatrick. In the film, Kirkpatrick, a CRPS expert, says the disorder stems from a previous injury or illness and evolves into intense pain, swelling, and skin sensitivity. It is also reportedly predominant in 9- to 11-year-old girls.

To manage the pain, Kirkpatrick recommended Maya be placed in a six-day ketamine coma and prescribed her a hefty dose of the dissociative anesthetic, which is used medically and recreationally as it “stimulates the brain and kind of resets everything,” Kirkpatrick explains.

Maya began to feel better after the coma procedure and continued her ketamine use, but a year later, she was back in the hospital with excruciating pain. This time, however, doctors didn’t assist the Kowalskis in helping their young daughter. They turned on them.

As the medical team at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital tried to understand Maya’s rare illness and drug use, they began questioning the Kowalskis — namely Maya’s mother, Beata, a registered nurse. Child welfare officials accused her of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, or medical child abuse, and Maya was put into state custody for months as her parents desperately tried to fight the allegations and bring their daughter home.

Tragically, the battle became too much for Beata, and after 87 days of fighting for her daughter, she took her own life on January 8, 2017, hoping her death would lead to Maya’s release.

Shortly after Beata’s funeral, Maya saw a specialist who confirmed she had CRPS, and she was sent home to be with her father and younger brother, Kyle. But life would never be the same.

“I lost one of the most important people in my life. A person who I didn’t even get to say goodbye to,” Maya says in the documentary.

From right: Maya, Jack, Beata, and Kyle Kowalski

Courtesy of Netflix

For Take Care of Maya producer Caitlin Keating and director Henry Roosevelt, the Kowalskis’ story stopped them in their tracks.

“I knew right [when I read Daphne Chen’s article in the Sarasota Herald Tribune], in my bones, that this was a story that needed to be heard by a larger audience,” Keating tells Scary Mommy. “That feeling was only confirmed when I flew down to Sarasota to meet with the family... [Then] when I discovered with Henry that their journey was something that thousands of other families were experiencing across the country, we knew we had to take it on.”

Using extensive archival material and recordings from Beata Kowalski, as well as intimate interviews with the Kowalski family, and medical and law professionals, the filmmakers spent four years crafting a narrative that not only divulges the Kowalski’s heartbreaking journey toward litigation but allows viewers to question the child welfare system as a whole.

“After we realized there was a nationwide pattern, where families accused of child abuse were proclaiming their innocence, we felt compelled to dive in headfirst to understand the complexities of the issue and these stories,” Roosevelt shares with Scary Mommy. “Humanizing the effects of the child welfare system on a singular family, we felt, was the best angle to take and the most honest in our pursuit for emotional truth and understanding.”

A still of Maya Kowalski from “Take Care of Maya.”

Courtesy of Netflix

Following Beata's death, the Kowalskis decided to fight back against Child Protective Services and the state of Florida to seek justice for what happened. Most families who've been accused of abuse opt to take a case plan due to lack of funds or inability to hire counsel, in which they choose to go along with whatever the state requires of them to get their child back. The Kowalskis never took a case plan, so they were able to sue Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital and the doctors involved in the misdiagnosis for punitive damages regarding "negligent infliction of emotional distress."

"She knew she was right, so she was going to fight," Jack said of his late wife, who refused to accept a case plan at the time.

Although the Take Care of Maya team hoped to document the entire case, after years of filming and litigation, the Kowalskis trial got delayed. They continue to pursue damages, while a new date has been set for September 11, 2023 — 2,530 days since Maya entered the hospital.

"The fact that the trial is not part of this film is also part of their story, and one of the reasons the family wants to speak out now to the world," Keating says, with Roosevelt adding, "Their resilience and persistence in the face of that adversity was extraordinarily motivating for all of us to keep recording. We believe the Kowalskis' story is just the beginning of a much larger conversation. So many families have already reached out, in the last week alone, with similar stories."

Keating receives emails daily from wrongly accused parents nationwide who feel seen and heard through the film. She and her producing partners at Story Syndicate and Wise Fool Films hope more and more families get validation for their personal experiences through Kowalskis' story.

"The child welfare system exists to protect children, and in many cases, it does a good job at doing so. But like any large system, it has its flaws," Keating states. "Child abuse should be taken very seriously, and mandated reporters exist for a very important reason. What we uncovered, though, after talking to many families across the country, is that a lot of these cases are not always black and white. There is a lot of gray. Many of these families said they were trying to do the best thing for their child, and instead, they found themselves involved in a system that is nearly impossible to get out of once you are in it."

Roosevelt concludes, "We know that the child welfare system was set up to protect families and save children. The question we ask is: Does it always have the intended outcome?"

Take Care of Maya is now streaming on Netflix.