Take Care of Maya 2023 Movie Review
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Take Care of Maya 2023 Movie Review

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Take Care of Maya 2023 Movie Review

It’s a familiar plot, something straight out of a network procedural: A sweet and engaging child is rushed to the hospital with a debilitating and painful ailment. But after some mistaken diagnoses, it’s revealed that the sick kid isn’t sick at all. They’re the victim of medical child abuse—Munchausen’s by proxy, as it’s popularly known—and must be separated from their family to save their life. But in the Netflix documentary Take Care of Maya, it’s that final diagnosis that’s the false one, a medical misfire that destroys a Florida family.

When she was nine years old, Maya Kowalski started suffering from asthma and complaining of a burning sensation in her legs, arms, and feet. By the summer of 2015, her mobility was so limited that she could no longer walk. Her parents were familiar with medical matters: Maya’s mom, Beata, was a Polish immigrant who worked her way through nursing school and still worked in the field. Her dad, Jack, was a retired firefighter. The pair documented Maya’s symptoms and aggressively sought care for their daughter, with doctor after doctor admitting that they were stumped. Eventually, they were referred to anesthesiologist and pharmacologist Anthony Kirkpatrick, a pain syndrome specialist. He diagnosed Maya with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), a term used to describe a set of symptoms including spontaneous and debilitating pain, muscle wasting, and movement impairments.

Kirkpatrick’s treatment protocol for CRPS is a regular dose of ketamine, a painkiller known in past decades as a veterinary anesthetic or as a club drug called “Special K.” In recent years, it’s also gained traction as a painkiller in hospital emergency rooms and is currently being studied for its potential mental health benefits. But in 2016, when Maya suffered a relapse of symptoms, including severe stomach pain, and was rushed to the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, doctors seemed alarmed by its use, even referring to Maya as “ketamine girl” in text messages revealed in the documentary.

Beata’s insistence that Johns Hopkins All Children’s continue Maya’s ketamine therapy, as well as a demeanor described by hospital workers as “pushy” and “demanding,” prompted a social worker to contact Florida’s Department of Children and Families to file a formal notice. Due to a lack of evidence, the report was discarded the next day, according to a 2022 report from “The Cut” and the Florida Center for Government Accountability. That’s when a pediatrician brought in Sally Smith, a doctor employed by Suncoast Center Inc., one of the organizations to which Florida outsources its privatized child welfare responsibilities.

A social worker filed a second report with child services, this time, suggesting that Beata had “mental issues.” According to Smith—who appears only via taped depositions in Take Care of Maya, and did not participate in the documentary—this was a case of Munchausen’s, with Beata making her daughter ill as a manifestation of Beata’s serious mental illness. On Smith’s advice, Maya was taken into state custody and was required to remain in the hospital, with little to no contact from her parents allowed.

Situations like Maya’s are “a nationwide pattern, where families are accused of child abuse and [are] preaching their innocence,” Take Care of Maya director Henry Roosevelt says. “This is a system that is meant to protect and help children,” producer Caitlin Keating says. The film’s intent is to “hear from families that experienced a really different outcome.”

Since its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 10, Keating says she’s been contacted by slews of families with stories similar to the one portrayed in the documentary, which will be released on Netflix June 19. “We really feel like the floodgates have been opened here,” she said.

Keating first heard of the Kowalski case when researching another project. In 2019, investigative journalist Daphne Chen, then a child welfare reporter at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, reported on a lawsuit filed against All Children’s Hospital by a family who said false allegations of medical child abuse prompted the child’s mother to commit suicide. That mother was Beata.

But though Beata died in 2017, hanging herself in her home’s garage three months after she was first accused of abusing Maya and just days after a judge ruled that their separation must continue, it’s her voice we might hear the most in Take Care of Maya. (After her suicide, the state dropped the case and Maya was returned to her father’s custody.) In the film we hear her increasing frustration and despair across phone calls, medical appointments, and conversations with caregivers. It’s an urgency that drives the documentary, which was initially intended to follow the Kowalskis’ lawsuit against All Children’s. There’s even an “exchange” between Beata and a teenaged Maya, as the latter reads a letter onscreen that a judge refused to allow her to read in court.

In fact, there’s so much audio footage of Beata that one might wonder if, as in controversial documentary Roadrunner, AI was used to recreate Beata’s words. It’s a question that takes Roosevelt aback. “Oh, no no no,” Roosevelt says at the prospect of an artificial augmentation. As a nurse, he says, Beata was in the habit of documenting every exchange regarding patient care, even when that patient was her daughter.

Including the letter was Maya’s idea, the director adds. “She told us she wanted to talk with her mom, and that if no one else would listen, maybe her mom would.” Months after filming, Roosevelt decided to intersperse some of Beata’s archived words with Maya’s as she read.

“Throughout the film, you hear so many conversations between Beata and Maya,” Keating said. “This was a way to continue that conversation, even after Beata’s death.”

Roosevelt and Keating worked on the documentary for four years, interviewing Jack, Kirkpatrick, and several of the family’s attorneys during that time. (Smith, hospital representatives, and other officials declined to be interviewed, the documentary states at its conclusion. In response to the forthcoming release of the documentary, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital released a statement, which, in part, reads that their “first responsibility is always to the child brought to us for care, and we are legally obligated to notify the Department of Children and Families when we detect signs of possible abuse or neglect.”) They delayed an interview with Maya until near the end of the process, as “we did not want to add any strain or stress upon her, by having her relive it.” Roosevelt says. Instead, the film relies on deposition footage of a now teenaged Maya for the first half of the film, as well as hospital footage of the 10-year-old Maya, lying alone in her bed at All Children’s.

An appeal by All Children’s have delayed the lawsuit until September of 2023. So Keating and Roosevelt decided to focus on Maya and her family’s battle so far, in hopes that other families who say they’ve also faced false charges by doctors and hospital workers will see that they’re not alone. “At a certain point, you have to stop filming,” Keating says. “But this is their truth, that the trial hasn’t happened yet. And we think that’s important to show that they are still fighting.”

Take Care of Maya 2023 Movie Review