“Take Care of Maya,” the new feature documentary on Netflix spotlighting medical world instances of families being falsely accused of child abuse, is meant to be the “beginning of the conversation” about a harrowing topic that remains misunderstood to many people, director Henry Roosevelt told TheWrap.
“There’s rarely an hour that goes by that we’re not getting a tweet, direct message, email, phone call or letter. It really shows you how widespread this problem is and how many people are experiencing something similar,” producer Caitlin Keating said. “People are saying that they saw themselves in this film in some way and the response has been overwhelming.”
The sometimes hard-to-watch documentary delves into the heartbreaking case of now 17-year-old Maya Kowalski, who was kept at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital for three months in 2016 against her will because doctors blamed her parents of “medical child abuse.”
At age 9, Maya had already been diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), but the staff at the prestigious Florida hospital had never heard of the condition. They also rejected the treatment that had proven effective in the past — massive doses of Ketamine — and refused to release her to her parents.
As Jack and Beata Kowalski fought to get Maya back, the rigid bureaucracy of the medical and Child Protective Services systems had devastating consequences, driving Beata to take her own life.
TheWrap spoke with “Take Care of Maya” director Henry Roosevelt and producer Caitlin Keating about the overwhelming response to the film and if they plan to be at the long-delayed trial against Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in September.
There are moments when you’re interviewing Maya that you have to stop. Obviously, it’s a very emotional story to tell.
Henry Roosevelt: We were very conscious about letting her know that she was driving the ship. We didn’t want to push her in any way that made her uncomfortable. That’s primarily why we use depositions in the first act, so we didn’t necessarily have to lean into her reliving incidents growing up.
Did you debate about whether to include the audio of a heated argument between Jack and Beata where he insists they have to cooperate with the hospital, while her focus is on getting the best care for Maya?
Caitlin Keating: I think it shows the truth and it shows what something like this does to a couple. It’s not always pretty, and that was something we thought a lot about including in the film.
Do you think there was harm being perpetrated deliberately? Or do you think that social worker Cathi Bedi and Dr. Sally Smith really thought they were doing the right thing?
CK: I think everyone in this system gets into this with really great intentions. We’re not there to present solutions to this system. We just wanted to present the emotional truth of this story and show both sides. And hope that families and people who work within this system can see what happened to the Kowalskis and hopefully put their heads together to figure out how we can change something
HR: I don’t believe in good or bad, it’s really how these parties will come together on a more empathetic level. And maybe that’s a bit too ideological, but I think that is our job is to expose the cracks of the world we live in and hope that smarter individuals in positions of power help mend those cracks.
When journalist Daphne Chen first wrote about the case, she heard from dozens of families in the same situation. Have you gotten a similar response to the documentary?
CK: There’s rarely an hour that goes by that we’re not getting a tweet, direct message, email, phone call or letter. It really shows you how widespread this problem is and how many people are experiencing something similar. People are saying that they saw themselves in this film in some way and the response has been overwhelming.
HR: We know that RNs and CPS workers are talking about it in classes and break rooms. So for us, it’s a positive thing, but it’s just the beginning of the conversation.
Do you feel like this documentary has already affected change or will going forward?
HR: I wouldn’t put that weight on it as a documentary filmmaker. But we feel that individuals are connecting to this and for us, that’s meaningful. I saw a GoFundMe page for a girl who had CRPS in Australia who’s looking for treatment and referenced “Take Care of Maya.” I see a lot of individuals with complex and rare diseases speaking out about their personal situation. So we feel like [the film] has empowered a lot of these families to speak out and not live in the shadows
I saw an article that the defendants feel like the documentary is so powerful that it will hurt their defense. Do you have a comment on that?
HR: We can’t talk about the legal elements beyond the film. We really, really pushed to include them and we really wanted to get their perspective and their side and that’s why we have [footage of their] deposition throughout.
CK: Throughout this whole process, every day, we were making sure we were showing both sides and being fair. People come up with their own conclusions. But, we are looking forward to seeing the trial happen in September.
Would you do a follow-up documentary if the trial happens? And how much of your life is still about this case even if you’re not going to make another film about it?
CK: It took up a lot of our life for good reason for a long time. And if we’re not filming the trial, we will definitely be tuning in.
HR: Truthfully after we finished it, I don’t think it belongs to us anymore. I don’t even think it necessarily belongs to Netflix. When the audience gets a hold of it, they’re going to experience it through their own lens. It’s almost taken on a life of its own.
“Take Care of Maya” is now streaming on Netflix