Did accusations of child abuse lead to Beata Kowalski's suicide?
That question was explored in the Netflix documentary Take Care of Maya, and a jury has since determined that the Florida hospital where the accusations against Beata originated played a role in her death.
Attorneys for Beata's family, including her now-17-year-old daughter Maya Kowalski, argued during an eight-week trial that Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg "falsely imprisoned and battered" Maya—and that being separated from her child for 87 days under a cloud of suspicion ultimately drove Beata to take her own life.
Maya cried as the verdict was read on Nov. 9, the decision livestreamed on Court TV. Agreeing that the hospital was liable for wrongful imprisonment, battery, medical negligence and infliction of emotional distress, the six-person jury awarded the Kowalskis more than $261 million, including $50 million in punitive damages.
"It feels really nice to finally have an answer to this court case," Maya said on NewsNation's Cuomo the next day. "No amount of money will ever replace my mom, so, honestly, we were just happy to get a yes. We were happy to have our prayers answered."
E! News has reached out to the hospital's counsel for comment and has not yet heard back. However, hospital attorney Howard Hunter said after the verdict that All Children's acted in accordance with Florida law—under which someone can be charged with a third-degree felony for failing to report suspected child abuse—and they planned to appeal the decision.
"The facts and the law remain on our side," he said in a statement, per the New York Times, "and we will continue to defend the lifesaving and compassionate care provided to Maya Kowalski by the physicians, nurses and staff of Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital and the responsibility of all mandatory reporters in Florida to speak up if they suspect child abuse."
One of the family's attorneys, Nick Whitney, said the hospital failed to protect Maya from "inside abusers."
"They decided that her disease was a charade," Whitney told NewsNation, "they told her that her mother had a mental illness, they interfered with phone calls, they did everything they could to victimize this girl inside of the hospital over those three months."
But how did a 2016 visit to the emergency room turn into a nightmare for the Kowalski family?
What happened to Maya Kowalski?
In the summer of 2015, then-9-year-old Maya started experiencing breathing problems, headaches and blurred vision, her father Jack Kowalski recalled in Take Care of Maya. Her feet started to point inward and she said her skin felt like it was on fire.
Maya saw a number of doctors, none of whom gave them a definitive answer as to what was wrong with her, Jack said. Beata—who is seen and heard in the film in recordings—documented each visit. She eventually found a specialist who diagnosed Maya with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a rare neurological disorder.
In November 2015, Maya underwent an experimental treatment in Monterrey, Mexico, that entailed her being sedated for five days while she was given high-dose ketamine infusions.
Sitting for a deposition in her family's lawsuit against Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in October 2021, Maya remembered feeling better after coming out of the so-called "ketamine coma."
"The ketamine helped me tremendously with my pain," she said, per video of the deposition shown in Take Care of Maya. "I had a little bit of short-term memory loss and sometimes things were really blurry with my vision, but I was willing to have those side effects if it was going to help me overall."
Maya remained on low-dose ketamine infusions when they returned home to Venice, Fla., Jack said in the film, and she felt steadily better for almost a year.
But in the early morning hours of Oct. 7, 2016, Maya woke up with severe stomach pain, Jack recalled. The retired firefighter took her to All Children's Hospital while Beata, a home health nurse, was still at work.
Once Jack got to the hospital, he said, he got his wife on the phone so she could speak to the doctors in the pediatric E.R.
All Children's Hospital attorney Howard Hunter said in his opening statement at trial that the doctors were immediately faced with a challenging case when Maya came in.
When her mother arrived, the lawyer said, per NBC News, "she forbade the doctors and the nurses to touch Maya" when they tried to examine her.
Beata wanted doctors to give Maya 1,500 mg of ketamine, Hunter said, which "is not approved for use in children, nor is it approved for use in high doses for treatment in CRPS."
A pediatric cardiac ICU physician testified in a video deposition, shown in the Netflix film, that they gave Maya a low dosage of ketamine, but after a few days they didn't feel it was helping and they questioned the CPRS diagnosis. Maya's parents were talking about taking her home, the doctor continued, and that's when he "started feeling unsafe" about the child's situation.
A doctor who worked for a private social-welfare company servicing Pinellas County (Florida privatized its child-welfare system in 2004) was called in to consult on Maya's case. That doctor filed a report on Oct. 13, 2016, detailing her diagnosis of Munchausen by proxy—a psychological disorder that manifests in a caretaker intentionally sickening, injuring or creating the appearance of health problems in a dependent, usually a child.
In her 2021 deposition, Maya recalled thinking at the time that the agency doctor was just another hospital employee, and if she and her parents had known that doctor was looking for signs of abuse, they wouldn't have spoken to her.
At a shelter hearing on Oct. 14, 2016, Maya was formally placed in the care of the state and a judge imposed a no-contact order between the girl and her mother while the Florida Department of Children and Families conducted its investigation into alleged abuse.
"One day I was in the ICU, and my mom kissed me on the forehead and was like, 'I love you. I'll see you tomorrow.' I never saw her again," Maya told People this past June. "I was medically kidnapped. I tried being hopeful, but there was a point where I thought, 'I'm never getting out of this place.'"
What did the Kowalski family accuse the hospital of doing to Maya?
"Maya Kowalski was falsely imprisoned and battered," attorney Greg Anderson argued in his opening statement when the family's lawsuit went to trial in September, per NBC News. "She was denied communication with the outside. She was told that her mother was crazy. She was told by social workers, one in particular, that she would be her mother."
CRPS caused Maya to be susceptible to injury or pain from even slight touch, the lawyer said in court, and nurses and social workers "repeatedly battered" her while "trying to prove that she did not have CRPS."
In his closing statement earlier this month, Anderson charged that the hospital vilified Beata because she dared question their expertise, adding, "What was the purpose of all this other than arrogance and the belief they could get away with it?"
And throughout the three months Maya was in the hospital's care, their lawsuit alleged, she wasn't receiving treatment for her actual condition.
"It was hard for me to be without my parents," Maya testified in her deposition, "and it was hard to put all of this trust into people I didn't even know." She said she remained in "constant pain" in the hospital, adding, "I was never listened to. I was basically ignored."
What happened to Beata Kowalski?
As part of the abuse investigation, Beata underwent a court-ordered psychological evaluation conducted by a licensed psychologist, according to The Cut. The results detailed in a Dec. 5, 2016, report shown in the documentary stated that the evaluator had been given "no evidence that would support the conclusion that Beata has falsified her daughter's medical condition."
Munchausen by proxy "may safely be ruled out," the report continued, per The Cut. But as seen in the doc, the psychologist stated in the report that Beata "displayed an agitated mood when discussing Maya's being sheltered and the allegations that had been made against her."
Audio clips of Jack and Beata arguing over her persistent calls to the hospital in October 2016 were played in Take Care of Maya.
"Our family was falling apart," Jack recalled in the film. He could be heard shouting at Beata to stop interfering, that he wanted to see his daughter again and she was "harassing" the nurses. Maya's younger brother, Kyle, was also heard on the recording in the doc asking his mom to please do what dad wanted.
"He's not always right," Beata replied.
Meanwhile, Jack and Kyle were allowed to visit Maya as long as they abided by strict rules. Jack said in the film that, even as he observed Maya's condition deteriorating, he didn't share any details with Beata for fear of losing his visitation privileges.
Beata was eventually allowed to speak with Maya remotely, with a social worker at the hospital monitoring their conversations. In a recording included in the film, she told her daughter she had "the worst Thanksgiving" because they weren't together. Maya said she didn't understand why she couldn't go home. "I'm very sorry," Beata told her. "Just be strong, ok?"
Maya spent her 11th birthday, Christmas and New Year's in the hospital.
At a status hearing on Jan. 6, 2017, as heard in a recording, the dependency court judge denied a request from the Kowalskis' attorney that Maya be allowed to see her mom "just momentarily" for a hug.
"I'm afraid not," the judge said. "Not today."
Two days later, Beata died by suicide. She was 43.
"I'm sorry but I no longer can take the pain being away from Maya and being treated like a criminal," read the note she left behind, per the Netflix film. "I cannot watch my daughter suffer in pain and keep getting worse while my hands are tied...It's been 3 months today of maya not being home!...I love you all."
Jack recalled having to break the news to Maya, telling People, "This little girl was already hurting, and now I had to tell her that her mother's passed. It was horrible."
The judge returned Maya to her father's care on Jan. 13, 2017, five days after Beata's death.
The family's 2018 lawsuit against the hospital contended, per the New York Times, that Beata suffered "Acute Stress Reaction and Grief reaction" after being wrongfully accused and separated from "her beloved daughter."
What did the hospital say in its defense about the treatment of Maya Kowalski?
The hospital's attorneys maintained that the staff followed the law and was abiding by an order from the state for the 92 days Maya was in their care. (Before the trial began, the judge ruled that the hospital couldn't be blamed for the decision to contact social services in the first place or for following the shelter order.)
"The coward's way out is to let [Maya and her parents] leave," lawyer Ethan Shapiro said, per the Tampa Bay Times. "People who care about children do not let that child walk out the door without talking to the family."
He reiterated to the New York Times after the jury delivered its verdict that doctors at the hospital made "a reasonable suspicion of medical child abuse. It is not All Children's Hospital that is obstructing visitation."
Shapiro said he expected the appeal process to get underway by the end of this year or in early 2024 and no damages would be paid until the process was complete.
How is Maya Kowalski doing today?
A condition of Maya's return to his care, Jack noted in the Netflix doc, was that she could no longer have ketamine treatments. But she began intensive physical therapy and, after about 18 months, she was able to get around on crutches after spending years in a wheelchair. In 2019, she started walking on her own again.
Maya had placed first in a figure-skating tournament in March 2022 and was participating in Duke University's Talent Identification Program for gifted kids, according to The Cut.
"I do my best to push through," Maya told People in June. "I've already missed a lot, so I want to make the most of life now."
Jack said in the film, "We are trying to do the best we can. But the kids will never be the same. It's very difficult to understand what went through Beata's mind, thinking that was the only way to get her daughter out. I miss her dearly, but I have anger here and there."
After the jury decided in her family's favor this month, Maya said that she felt the legal win would "mean everything" to her mother.
"My mom was the type of person, when she was right, she was gonna prove it," the teen said on Cuomo. "Unfortunately, she's not here to carry that out, but we are here and we carried it out and we proved her right."