Editor’s Note: The following contains Take Care of Maya spoilers.
Even though we are discouraged, we will not settle – the words by Maya Kowalski capture the emotional struggle of the Kowalskis and many other families who have found themselves being targeted by the system. Henry Roosevelt‘s Take Care of Maya on Netflix feels like an ode to this struggle by the time the curtain falls on the story of Maya Kowalski and her family. The Netflix documentary doesn’t waste much time getting to the crux of the problem. To accurately highlight the magnitude of the tragedy that followed, Take Care of Maya starts out by shedding light on the life of the family before it struck. But even with the slightly hopeful beginning, it becomes evident that there is limited light at the end of the tunnel as the truth behind the tragic events faced by Maya and her family is laid out for scrutiny. But what’s the true story behind this documentary?
By the time 17-year-old Maya Kowalski gets done with her story, it becomes evident that, as opposed to the many Netflix documentaries in which the perpetrators are numbered and few, there are many responsible for the systemic violence dispensed out in Maya’s case. The more haunting reality – with which even Henry Roosevelt decided to conclude his documentary film – is that the victims of this violence also lie in the hundreds. Through a shocking true story, Take Care of Maya bares down a problem much rampant and larger than what could be captured by nearly a 2-hour long documentary film.
Who Is ‘Take Care of Maya’s Maya Kowalski?
Maya’s story began when she was born to Jack and Beata Kowalski who faced initial difficulties conceiving a child. Jack was a retired firefighter and Beata worked as an infusion nurse. Life was going well for the Kowalskis until one day in 2015 when Maya started feeling sick with symptoms ranging from blurred vision to unbearable pain. After going through an array of doctors who failed to identify the cause of Maya’s condition, an expert in Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), Dr. Anthony Kirkpatrick, diagnosed Maya with the disease and started suggesting a Ketamine infusion treatment, which delivered proven results to many patients before Maya. A patient suffering from CRPS goes through spontaneous bouts of excessive pain much greater than normal pain. Even a small touch may lead to a feeling of immense pain.
Thankfully, the Ketamine infusion worked for Maya and she got significantly better although she wasn’t able to walk still. Maya’s condition required her to be under high dosages of Ketamine. When the Kowalskis couldn’t afford Dr. Kirkpatrick’s treatment anymore, they were referred to Dr. Ashraf Hanna, who continued to prescribe low dosages of the medicine. The situation was fine up until an unfortunate day in October 2016 when luck ran out for the family. On October 7, 2016, Maya relapsed and her parents took her to John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital after she complained of suffering from stomach pain. Jack quickly found out that the doctors at the hospital had little idea of Maya’s condition and he made them talk to Beata who insisted on Ketamine infusion in high dosages. This seemed to have triggered the suspicions of the doctors regarding child abuse which quickly cemented once they noticed that the low dosage Ketamine infusion was having little effect on Maya’s condition. As a result, the doctors reported the incident to the Child Protection Services, leading to the entry of Child Abuse Pediatrician Dr. Sally Smith. Dr. Smith quickly concluded, apparently after a 10-minute interview with Jack, that Maya was to be taken into state custody.
Why Was Maya Separated From Her Family?
Dr. Smith strongly believed that Maya was a victim of child medical abuse and Beata was diagnosed with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a form of mental illness and child abuse in which the caretaker of a child makes it look like that their child needs medical attention, either through fake symptoms or real ones. The conclusion by Dr. Smith, who does not appear in the documentary, resulted in Maya’s custody being taken away from the Kowalskis. Interestingly, in the documentary, Dr. Kirkpatrick reveals that he had offered objective evidence regarding Maya’s diagnosis to Dr. Smith but she did not mention the same in her report. The hospital prevented any contact between Maya and her mother. Later, a psychological evaluation was ordered for Beata, and it revealed that Beata did not suffer from Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
In Take Care of Maya, Jack becomes the primary narrator as he spreads out the details of the events that followed after Maya was taken into state custody. He claims that the authorities tried pitting him against his wife, which he complied with, at the moment, to be able to visit his daughter. Despite the hospital claiming that Maya improved during her stay there, Jack and Maya both come up with contrary claims, even pointing out how the hospital staff tried making it look like Maya was lying about her pain. Beata’s concerns about her child’s safety were further elevated when she found out that her daughter was being accompanied by a nurse who had child abuse charges against her. At this point, the documentary points out how Maya and her family were ripped off of all their rights as photos were taken of Maya without her or her family’s consent.
Despite the continued struggle the family has been through, the worst was yet to come for Maya and her family as three months after Maya was placed under state custody, Beata Kowalski hung herself in her house. The breaking point for Beata came when she was prevented by the judge from hugging her daughter in court earlier that day. Before committing suicide, Beata sent an email to her family, explicitly mentioning the factors leading to her decision. In the email, she blamed the judge should anything were to happen to Maya. Five days after Beata’s death, Maya’s custody was handed over to her father, Jack Kowalski. The return to home was, however, just the beginning of another endless struggle for the Kowalskis.
Although the court denied Maya from taking Ketamine treatment, physical therapy eventually helped Maya regain her ability to walk, but nothing could bring Beata back to Maya who dearly misses her mother. At this point, it is revealed that a local news reporter Daphne Chen‘s coverage of the Kowalskis led to an influx of emails and letters from numerous families who have been victims of similar systemic oppression, all of which centered around Dr. Sally Smith. But usually in cases of such battles for child custody, the families ended up taking the Case Plan, an agreement from the family’s side that they will comply with the necessary instructions to get back their child’s custody. The Case Plan removed the liability from the hospitals. However, the Kowalskis did not accept the Case Plan for Maya. Moreover, Beata’s detailed documentation of Maya’s medical history before and after her admission to John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital left the Kowalskis with a strong case.
Where Is ‘Take Care of Maya’s Maya Kowalski Now?
Finally, the Kowalskis decided to file a lawsuit against the hospital. Although the opposition tried its best to thwart a trial, the lawsuit by the Kowalskis will go to trial in September ’23. The Second District Court of Appeal even approved the request by Kowalskis to pursue punitive damages. As established by the closing moments of the documentary, the trial is set for September 11, 2023 – exactly 2,530 days after Maya’s admission to John Hopkins. It is also revealed that Dr. Sally Smith already settled her portion of the lawsuit back in December 2021. The Kowalskis continue to live in Florida in hopes they will get the justice that the hundreds of families who approached the filmmakers during the course of the making of Take Care of Maya never did. Maya Kowalski continues to live with the pain caused by her medical condition and her mother’s unfortunate demise although, as echoed by Maya’s last words in the documentary, she’s adamant that she will continue to fight for her mother and for the many other families who find themselves amidst a similar, tiring struggle.