Many likely remember the story of Gypsy Rose Blancharde, the Missouri teen whose mother, Dee Dee, inculcated within her countless afflictions she never actually had. And before her case made national headlines in 2016, Dee Dee’s own diagnosis—Munchausen by proxy—was barely discussed at all (that is, unless one read Sharp Objects, or tuned in to Season 6 of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills).
The world knows what became of the Blanchardes, but what happens when a mother is so dedicated to the care of her legitimately unwell daughter that she’s accused of the psychological disorder, legally separated from her, and driven to end her own life? Such was the tragic trajectory of Beata Kowalski, told in devastating detail in Take Care Of Maya, a documentary that premiered on Netflix on Monday.
In early 2019, the Sarasota Herald Tribune published the Kowalski family’s story for the first time. “Maya Kowalski’s only problem when she entered Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital was a severe stomachache,” it began. “By the time the preteen left the St. Petersburg facility three months later, her condition had deteriorated, her family was shattered and her mother was dead.”
Their story soon caught the eye of Take Care Of Maya’s producer, Caitlin Keating, then a People magazine reporter who later left the magazine to pursue the Kowalski family’s story full time.
“I had covered hundreds of human interest stories at People, but this one felt different,” Keating told Jezebel via email. “It felt big, complicated, and multi-layered. There was a lot of mystery.”
By 2019, the Kowalskis had already suffered five years of agony—first, from their tireless attempts to diagnose the series of strange symptoms that had taken hostage of then-9-year-old Maya’s body seemingly overnight in 2014. After receiving an answer (a rare neurological condition that inflicts constant or intermittent pain in its host’s arms and legs known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, or CRPS) thanks to a specialist, Dr. Anthony Kirkpatrick, the Kowalskis then sought to gain control of Maya’s CRPS by any means necessary. For a while, the family found relief in Kirkpatrick, who treated the condition with infusions of ketamine, including five-day “ketamine comas” in which a high dose of the drug is administered to “reset” the nervous system. Beata, a registered nurse, documented her daughter’s condition, exhaustively tracking the progress and the pitfalls in notebooks, via voice and video recordings and photographs—all of which play a pivotal, painful role in the documentary.
“Beata was extremely knowledgeable in the medical field and knew to document everything she experienced, but we will never know if she anticipated how big this battle would become and if those notes would one day be so helpful,” Keating told Jezebel. “I’m not sure that we would have a film today without all of the documentation.”
Though the ketamine treatments proved helpful to Maya’s condition, she relapsed in 2016 and was hospitalized at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in the Tampa Bay area for debilitating stomach pain. Upon arrival, Beata begged nurses to administer a dose of ketamine to alleviate her daughter’s pain. The request concerned hospital staff enough to contact Florida’s Child Protective Services (CPS). Shortly thereafter, the agency launched an investigation of Beata and erroneously accused her of Munchausen by proxy, culminating in a state-sanctioned separation from her daughter, who remained hospitalized in state custody for three months.
The state order filled Beata and Jack’s relationship with distrust, disagreement, and ultimately, resentment, as seen in the film. Beata was unbending in her dealings with the hospital and CPS; Jack adopted a more relaxed approach in the hopes that it would prove more successful in getting their daughter back sooner. Some fights that disrupted the Kowalski home are shown—or, heard—in full, thanks to Beata’s own archive.
“Our family was falling apart,” a tearful Jack tells the camera at one point.
But Johns Hopkins’ and CPS’s suspicion of Beata deepened. Though Maya’s doctors made several appeals, insisting that her condition was always subject to change and that a slight improvement in state custody had nothing to do with being away from her mother, a judge repeatedly ruled against the Kowalskis and the family was kept from Maya. Beata and Jack, via their attorneys, made countless pleas for physical contact—just a hug—with their daughter. All were denied.
“Do you think if she had hugged her, things would turn out differently?” one of the Kowalski family’s attorneys is asked at one point in the documentary. “Yes. Yes, I do,” the lawyer answers without hesitation.
After 87 days of forced separation from her daughter, Beata ended her life at home, at the age 43. “I’m sorry,” she wrote in an email found following her passing. “But I no longer can take the pain being away from Maya and being treated like a criminal. I cannot watch my daughter suffer in pain and keep getting worse.”
It’s here that Take Care Of Maya is so singularly shocking that one might have difficulty imagining anything like it happening to anyone else. Then, the filmmakers introduce audiences to a number of families who’ve been hurt by the same injustice, demonstrating that the Kowalskis’ experience is only one of a disturbing pattern: In Pinellas County, where Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital is located, children are almost two and a half times more likely to be removed from their families than the state average.
Since the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this month, Keating said that many other parents who were separated from their kids by Florida’s CPS “have reached out telling us that this film has helped validate what they have been through and has made them feel believed and heard.”
Maya and Jack Kowalski have filed a lawsuit against Johns Hopkins for false imprisonment and battery. The proceedings are scheduled for September.