Dr. Sally Smith once again finds herself at the center of controversy surrounding her work as the former medical director for the Pinellas County Child Protective Services team in Florida, thanks to Netflix’s newest documentary, “Take Care of Maya.”
Smith has a long history of making allegations causing irreparable trauma and harm by quickly diagnosing child abuse and ripping families apart by separating them despite many of the parents or caregivers being credibly innocent.
The USA Today Network launched a multi-part investigation into Florida’s child welfare system in 2021. In its investigation the network found more than a dozen cases where charges were dropped, parents were acquitted or caregivers had credible claims of innocence yet still suffered harm to their lives and reputations stemming from the allegations brought against them by Smith.
“Take Care of Maya” recaps the heartbreaking story of Maya Kowalski, a young girl who was taken from her parents by the state after Smith accused Maya’s parents, Beata and Jack Kowalski, of making up fake symptoms about a condition Maya had been dealing with for over a year.
Here’s what you need to know about Smith and where she is now.
Who is Dr. Sally Smith?
Dr. Sally Smith is the former medical director for the Pinellas County Child Protective Services team in Florida who came under fire after investigations revealed that her quick methods of diagnosing child abuse led to dozens of instances where charges were dropped, parents were acquitted or caregivers were found to be credibly innocent.
As the head of the Pinellas County child protection team, Smith examines virtually every child funneled to All Children’s Hospital with suspicious injuries.
Prosecutors and law enforcement treated her world like gold, according to USA Today. However, defense attorneys, parents and even child welfare employees complained about her aggressive interrogation tactics used against parents and often wondered how she saw “invisible” injuries other doctors missed.
Smith, a graduate of the St. Louis University School of Medicine, began working at All Children’s Hospital in the ‘90s. She became medical director of the Pinellas County child protection team in 2002 and has held the position for nearly two decades.
In 2009, she along with nearly 200 physicians, sat for the nation’s first exam in child abuse pediatrics where they argued that research in brain injury, fractures, burns and scars can now enable well-trained doctors to reliably distinguish abuse from accident.
According to USA Today, Florida is unique in that almost all child abuse cases are required to be evaluated by one of the two dozen child protection teams in the state, each of which is overseen by a certified child abuse pediatrician.
Despite the irreparable damage these families endured, Smith never faced any consequences.
Where is Sally Smith now?
Smith is still listed on the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital (JHACH) staff page as an independent practitioner. She is also listed on the Bayfront Health staff page, but no details are provided about her role in the health system.
The USA TODAY Network reviewed hundreds of Smith’s cases in conjunction with a multi-part investigation into Florida’s child welfare system. It found more than a dozen instances where charges were dropped, parents were acquitted or caregivers had credible claims of innocence yet suffered irredeemable damage to their lives and reputations.
In its investigation titled “Bad Medicine,” the network followed the Kushnir family’s experience with Smith. The Kushnir, an immigrant family from Ukraine who ran a trucking business in Sarasota County, was accused of abusing their 6-week-old son, William.
The investigation also detailed Smith’s early career and how she quickly made a name for herself as a staunch child advocate who was frequently quoted in local news stories regarding shaken baby syndrome.
As she became more famous in her circles, her hard-line stance against families began to take shape. In hospital lectures, Smith warned that parents and caretakers were often “full-on lying,” often never introducing herself to families who had never seen Smith before and treating them like villains right out of the gate.
The Kushnir story
Elina Kushnir went into labor in July and went through complicated labor. When Vadim and Elina saw their son’s face for the first time, it was blue and bruises dotted it and his shoulders. William’s umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck.
Doctors unwrapped the cord, but William’s life didn’t get any easier from that point. For the next two weeks, he cried every time he was touched. Their pediatrician blamed the traumatic birth and sensitive skin, but a month later, Elina noticed her son twitching and doctors discovered bleeding in William’s brain and two rib fractures.
Smith came to examine William the day after the Kushnirs brought him to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
When she entered the room, she didn’t introduce herself, according to USA Today. She didn’t answer their questions or really even notice them until she left. On her way out, she turned to the family and said “This is child abuse, and I’m going to prove it.”
Two weeks later, the Kushnirs were escorted from the hospital where they had stayed by their son’s side for weeks by an investigator from the Department of Children and Families. The department then took custody of William and his sister.
Smith accused the Kushnirs of “egregious abuse” in family court, stating that the mixture of old and new blood in William’s brain proved he had been abused multiple times since birth.
“Violent shaking would be one possibility,” she said. “Slamming him on a bed 15 times would be another.”
Smith claimed that William’s rib fractures were two to three weeks old and caused by someone crushing his chest, according to DCF documents obtained by USA Today. Smith also claimed that a “linear bruise” on William’s arm indicated “high force blunt trauma with a long, linear object.”
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Smith’s claims fell apart under scrutiny from the Kushnir’s lawyers, however. The “linear bruise” was determined to be a rash that Elina had shown to William’s pediatrician in a recent visit that was likely caused by the straps of his car seat, according to the pediatrician’s testimony. The pediatrician also stated that the rash was so small they wouldn’t have noticed it had Elina not pointed it out.
The attorneys also asked if the injuries suffered from his birth trauma could explain his current injuries. Smith responded saying she had only partially examined his birth records.
California radiologist Dr. Susan Gootnick argued that William’s hemorrhages were re-bleeds from birth trauma, not from shaking, according to USA Today. Gootnick argued that William’s rib fractures weren’t two to three weeks old, but were closer to six weeks old — around the time of his birth.
The judge sided with the Kushnirs, citing the state’s inconsistent testimony and failure to look into the circumstances of William’s birth.
She ordered William and Adele to return to their parents immediately.
Other notable cases involving Smith
Beata Kowalski, a 43-year-old mother of two and a subject in the Netflix documentary, died by suicide in 2017 after Smith accused her of Munchausen syndrome by proxy — a rare disorder in which a parent fakes a child’s illness for sympathy or gain. Her family members are now suing Smith and All Children’s Hospital for what they said were trumped-up claims.
John Stewart, a Marine Corps veteran, spent 300 days in jail on Smith’s allegation that he killed his girlfriend’s son by throwing him repeatedly against a soft surface. Prosecutors dropped the charges after a neuropathologist contradicted Smith’s findings, according to internal memos.
Tara Brown, 39, underwent three grueling rounds of in vitro fertilization to conceive twins with her physician husband. She was accused of inflicting countless fractures on her 6-week-old infants, but the charges were expunged after another doctor diagnosed them with a rare bone disorder.