Maya Kowalski "Wins": More Abuses Unearthed in System That Often Fails Children and Their Families
Maya Kowalski won her case against Johns Hopkins. However, the trial unearthed the ongoing abuses in a system that often fails children and their families. On Nov. 9 in a landmark, unanimous decision, a jury in Florida awarded Maya Kowalski over $261 million in liability and punitive damages. The nine-week trial in the Kowalski v. Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital (JHACH) lawsuit began on Sept. 21. JHACH was found liable for six civil claims including: "false imprisonment of Maya Kowalski, battery of Maya Kowalski, fraudulent billing of Jack Kowalski, inflicting emotional distress on Maya's mother Beata, a wrongful death claim for estate of Beata Kowalski, and intentionally inflicting emotional distress on Maya Kowalski." The jury deliberated for over 11 hours, according to reports.
First diagnosed in Sept. 2015, Maya, now 17, suffers with a rare neuropathic disease called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). She was being successfully treated with Ketamine infusion treatments to alleviate her symptoms. Her story is the subject of the Netflix documentary entitled, "Take Care of Maya" that debuted in June, 2023.
The win is unusual because it is excruciatingly difficult to find hospitals liable for claims like these, let alone for the "wrongful death" of someone connected with a patient. The hospital accused Beata of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, an accusation that eventually lead to her suicide. The hospital also accused Maya of faking her symptoms.
Dr. Pradeep Chopra's expert testimony during the trial confirmed CRPS is "a devastatingly painful and debilitating neuropathic condition," according to court documents. Ironically, he said it is "one of the few pain conditions you can actually see." He has treated "approximately 125,000 patients in the last 20 years," according to his testimony.
Freedom Forever interviewed family advocate Rachel Bruno about the case because her experiences with the social service system speak to the issues brought forward in Maya's case. Bruno has made it her life's work to advocate for families whose children have been wrongfully removed by Child Protective Services (CPS) and mistreated by our social services system. In 2015, in what is a mother's worst nightmare, her seven-week-old infant and an older sibling were wrongfully removed from her care. The removals resulted in a herculean battle that Bruno ultimately and miraculously won.
Bruno learned that just because a child is removed by CPS does not always mean the parents have done something wrong. She also learned firsthand just how difficult it is to navigate a system that is set up to sabotage parental rights. Bruno nearly lost her two sons to the Foster Care system.
Bruno's experiences lead her to advocate for other parents who for one reason or another are caught up in a system where the odds are often stacked against them due to financial and, often politically driven, policy incentives. It was only through the "grace of God" and a good attorney who was willing to take her case that Bruno was able to get her two young children back. She writes about her family's nightmarish experience in her book, "Fractured Hope".
Even after her children were returned to her, according to Bruno,
"The case remained open for six months, where social services would come visit our house, make unannounced visits for six months. And at the end of the six months, it was their recommendation that the case be closed. The criminal investigation remained open for a year. And it was basically closed due to lack of evidence. Once everything was closed, we sued hospitals in LA and Orange County and the Sheriff's department in civil court for 4th and 14th Amendment right violations. We finally settled in December of 2018 for $1.49 million dollars."
In Oct. 2016 Maya's mother Beata, who was also an infusion nurse, took Maya to JHACH ER because she was experiencing "abdominal pain and vomiting." For about 15 months prior to the ER visit, Maya's family was using Ketamine to help manage Maya's pain. The family went to Mexico initially to receive treatment because Ketamine used for pain management is an "off-label" use of the drug and not officially approved in the U.S.
According to Bruno, Maya landed in Johns Hopkins' ER because of a relapse. At the ER, when Beata insisted ER doctors administer a high dosage of Ketamine, they refused to do it and she was then admitted to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). Bruno says Maya was effectively "held hostage," (falsely imprisoned) by the hospital without proper authority to do so. Court documents also confirm Bruno's statement. "All of this happened before DCFS got involved, before family court got involved. The hospital essentially held her hostage for 48 hours while staff was reporting to DCFS," says Bruno. The hospital also forbade Beata from seeing her daughter because the doctors and therapists there developed the belief she was an unfit parent who was a danger to her child.
Notably, according to the complaint, during her ER visit JHACH staff ignored pleas from Maya's parents to avoid "medical procedures necessitating physical contact with the patient that would be painful for a CRPS patient, such as applying a blood pressure cuff, administering an EKG, and undergoing additional scans. While seemingly benign and innocuous to physicians unfamiliar with CRPS, such contact can and ofen does cause flare-ups of the condition."
Dr. Sally Smith who, according to the complaint, acted as an "agent of JHACH" and served as the hospital's "Director of Child Abuse," made a number of decisions that probably heavily influenced the jury's ultimate decision. Smith "access[ed] Maya's medial records without the Kowalski's consent and prior to any shelter proceedings, in violation of HIPAA, and consulted with her colleagues at JHACH outside of any open investigation being initiated by the Child Protection Team concerning all aspects of Maya's care."
The hospital was in full support of her actions, affirming "by word and action to Jack and Maya that Dr. Smith was there to examine and treat here as a hospital pediatrician exactly as every other hospital pediatrician attending to Maya," according to the complaint. Smith also authorized the surgical removal of Maya's infusion port and ordered that "she be unnecessarily 'weaned off' all pain medication." She was charged by the hospital with "full authority" to make critical decisions" and also "'ran' JHACH's child abuse program and was their 'go-to' doctor."
Dr. Smith and Maya's social worker, Catherine Bedy, were allegedly "close." Bedy was "implicated in the lawsuit," according to reporting from Grit Daily, "For her part in a distressing event involving Maya." Bedy allegedly "forcibly removed Maya's clothing and photographed her without consent on the eve of Maya's first meeting with her mother after a long separation."
The complaint lists many instances of inappropriate behavior on Bedy's part involving "repeated violations of Maya's personal space." Maya's case is not the first to implicate Bedy in such behavior. According to Grit Daily, Bedy was arrested with another therapist, Veronica Lortz following "a deeply distressing incident involving a 10-year-old boy." When the boy allegedly "ignored Bedy's inquiries," things "escalated rapidly." Bedy allegedly "forcibly pushed the boy to the ground and placed both knees on his chest, causing him to struggle for breath." She was also allegedly "dismissive of his pleas for help."
The details contained in this column represent a mere tip of the iceberg of the abuses in Maya's case. The evidence and testimony presented during the trial, as referenced above, must have been overwhelmingly convincing to the jury because it is painfully difficult to prove a hospital's liability in cases like these.
Just ask the family of Justina Pelletier who lost their civil suit against Boston Children's hospital for similar treatment of their sweet daughter. According to Lyme Disease News, the 14-year-old child spent "nearly a year in the hospital's psychiatric ward in 2013 after doctors told state authorities they suspected her parents of medical child abuse. The state’s child protection agency took custody of the 14-year-old within days of her arrival at Children’s and minimized interactions, visitations, and telephone conversations with her parents."
The cost of fighting a hospital system is not only steep financially but is also steep emotionally. In Maya's case, she lost her mother because of multiple abuses of power that profoundly changed the life of a young girl and her family.
Freedom Forever has repeatedly confirmed the failures of the American social welfare system in its reporting. The foster care system not only fails and sometimes abuses children and families but it often profits from the very children it seeks to serve. In addition, many are still woefully unaware that innocent children enrolled in the U.S. foster system go missing in the thousands every year. Data from 2014 showed that 1 in 6 children who were in the social service network were trafficked and by 2015 the number became 1 in 5.
Freedom Forever is an all volunteer organization that focuses its energy and time on preserving the innocence and safety of children. Freedom Forever is now also offering crisis support for survivors and families. Please call the Crisis Resource Line at 615.307.0152 or email our resource specialist at Starr@FreedomForever.us.
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