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In Light of Landmark Verdict, the Family Justice Resource Center Launches Toolkit Calling for Change in Child Abuse Pediatrics


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

February 27, 2024



PEORIA, Illinois — The Family Justice Resource Center (FJRC), a national nonprofit organization headquartered in Illinois, has released a comprehensive 'Call to Action' Toolkit aimed at addressing systemic flaws in the child abuse pediatric system in America, as highlighted by the landmark ruling in the recent Kowalski v. Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital case. The Toolkit demonstrates the devastating impacts experienced by families due to medically-based wrongful allegations of child abuse. It also details how intertwined health care, law enforcement, and child protection systems enable child abuse pediatricians to simultaneously play conflicting roles in investigation, prosecution, and treatment of children without necessary checks and balances.


On November 9, 2023, a Pinellas County Florida jury awarded Maya Kowalski and her family $261 million in compensatory and punitive damages against Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital (JHACH). JHACH sought to reverse the verdict, but on January 16, 2024, the trial judge issued a ruling that excoriated JHACH for continuing to defend its actions as exemplary medical care in the face of clear findings of conduct towards Maya akin to “torture.” The judge did, however, reduce specific items of damage by a total of $47.5 million, leaving intact an award to the Kowalski family totaling $213.5 million.


The Kowalski case arose after Dr. Sally Smith, a child abuse pediatrician at JHACH, falsely accused Maya's mother, Beata Kowalski, of fabricating Maya’s extreme pain symptoms, which were, in fact, due to Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). After reviewing the initial hotline call and confirming Maya’s CRPS diagnosis, child protective services screened the case out. At that point, Smith initiated a second hotline call against Beata, and the hospital baselessly refused to honor the family’s request to discharge Maya from JHACH so they could pursue treatment for her elsewhere. The hospital and Smith, working in tandem with police and child protection authorities, secured restrictions on Maya’s treatment and on parental contact. Based on their actions, Beata was removed from the hospital and Maya, who was only 10 years old and in extreme pain, was confined to a hospital room alone without treatment. After 87 days of no contact with her daughter, Beata Kowalski committed suicide. The actions of Dr. Smith are shown in chilling detail in the hit Netflix documentary Take Care of Maya.


While the Kowalski case is a compelling indicator of the devastation that occurs when child abuse pediatric authority goes unchecked, the Toolkit establishes that the case is not unique. Indeed, state and federal policies and the absence of essential protections are endemic to the practice of child abuse pediatrics, even to the detriment of the medical treatment of children in hospital settings whose parents find themselves wrongfully accused of child abuse. The Toolkit includes clear, actionable steps that will help health care institutions, child welfare and law enforcement agencies, and patient advocates take corrective actions to prevent future cases like Maya Kowalski’s and countless others across the country.


Diane Redleaf is a co-founder of the FJRC and a nationally-known family advocate who authored They Took the Kids Last Night: How the Child Protection System Puts Families at Risk (ABC-Clio 2018) as well as an earlier study of medical ethics of child abuse pediatrics that highlights some of the same issues present in the Kowalski case. Redleaf says, “If health care institutions and medical providers would consider the steps outlined in the Toolkit as essential corrections to the currently untenable system, I’m confident we’d see fewer lawsuits like Kowalski v. Johns Hopkins in the future. The Toolkit provides practical ways that systems can both protect children from abuse and ensure family rights are protected at the same time. A careful reexamination of child abuse pediatricians’ tremendous—and too-often unchecked—power is overdue.”


Established in 2018, the FJRC assists accused families and their legal representatives in ensuring that medically-based child welfare investigations adhere to principles of due process and evidence-based medicine. The FJRC is working with Illinois Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford to pass the Protecting Innocent Families Act (Illinois Senate Bill 3630) to advance patients’ rights as to notification of the role child abuse pediatricians play in child protection cases.


Michelle Weidner, Executive Director of the FJRC, emphasizes, "We have assisted hundreds of families like the Kowalskis. In each case, a common thread emerges—a child abuse pediatrician presents themselves to parents as a treating physician who is there to provide care for their child; however, they routinely fail to inform parents that they are there first and foremost to investigate a suspicion of child abuse and that they work directly with child protective services, law enforcement, and prosecutors. These child abuse pediatricians not only make the allegations, but they also often evaluate the validity of their own hotline calls and lead state efforts to pursue family separation and criminal charges. These unjust practices disproportionately impact Black families and parents of with children with rare diseases. The dual role as both government agents and members of a child’s treatment team allows too many child abuse pediatricians to function as 'cops in white coats' without accountability or transparency."


For more information on the FJRC and to view the Toolkit, visit www.famjustice.org/toolkit.


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Organization: Family Justice Resource Center

Contact: Michelle Weidner, Executive Director

Phone: (309) 431-9127 ext. 2


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