The Maya Case: A Verdict That Could Change a Mother’s Life After Losing Her Kids Due to a False Diagnosis

Maya Kowalski was admitted to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in 2016. She was 10-years-old at the time and in extreme pain from a condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). Sally Smith, a child abuse pediatrician who worked at the hospital through a state contract with child protective services, insisted Maya’s condition was caused and exaggerated by her manipulative mother—so-called Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Deferring to Smith (over the diagnosis of Maya’s doctor, a CRPS specialist), the hospital kept Maya isolated from her family for three months as she suffered in excruciating pain and loneliness, crying for her mother, who was not allowed to visit. In despair, Maya’s mother killed herself. The Kowalskis’ story is told in the Netflix documentary Take Care of Maya. Last month, a jury awarded Maya and her family $261 million for false imprisonment, medical negligence, and other charges. At the end of the documentary, about a dozen parents briefly comment on how child abuse pediatricians destroyed their families with false diagnoses. Smith recently retired. But the Maya documentary shows “that some child abuse doctors function mainly as prosecutorial witnesses,” says Diane Redleaf, a legal consultant to my non-profit, Let Grow. Her book, They Took the Kids Last Night, chronicles six stories of parents accused of abuse who were later found innocent. The problem, says Redleaf, is the new-ish speciality of child abuse pediatricians. They are not required to tell families that they are contracted by the state, and that they send their reports to law enforcement and child protective services. “There needs to be more oversight on how child abuse pediatricians operate within hospital settings,” says Redleaf. Take the case of Decatur, Illinois, mom Patti Krueger. Krueger’s son Wyatt was born with a rare genetic disorder that affected his breathing; he had had four operations by the time he turned two. Patti eventually brought him to the OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, where a child abuse pediatrician, Channing Petrak, arbitrarily decided that Wyatt was suffering from Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Armed police officers escorted Wyatt’s father and grandmother out of the hospital. Wyatt spent half a week alone in the hospital and was then placed in foster care, according to Aaron Rapier, an attorney for the family. Child services also placed Wyatt’s older brother, age 3, in foster care. And when Patti Krueger gave birth to her third son, he was placed in foster care four hours later. For more than a year, the Kruegers were only allowed to see their kids twice a week, from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., with a child services official supervising. In July 2020, a judge vacated all abuse charges against the Kruegers and ordered that the children be returned home. The Kruegers have since filed a federal lawsuit against Petrak, the hospital, and 10 child services caseworkers for illegally removing the boys from their home. When the defendants asked U.S. District Court Judge Joe McDade to dismiss the case on qualified immunity grounds, they were denied. Krueger is slated to give her deposition next year. Unfortunately, she is currently in and out of the hospital herself, being treated for cancer. While obviously her ordeal with child services did not cause this disease, Krueger claims that she was unwilling to seek a second medical opinion about her foot pain because she was worried she would be accused of doctor-shopping—a red flag for Munchausen syndrome by proxy. It was only when her foot no longer fit in her shoe that she finally got tested, revealing a rare and large sarcoma. Her toe had to be amputated. Now Michelle Weidner—head of the Family Justice Resource Center, an organization that assists parents like the Kruegers—is hoping to pass a law that would require child abuse pediatricians to disclose their work with state authorities. They would also have to inform parents they have the right to a second opinion. When the Kruegers’ case comes to court, Maya’s multi-million dollar verdict may come into play, says Rapier. Take Care of Maya has made the public better informed about the pain and suffering caused by false diagnoses. “People understand that these child abuse pediatricians have unlimited power,” he says.