Girl's Death Brings Ban on Kind of Therapy

New York Times/April 18, 2001
By Michael Janofsky

Denver -- Standing beside the sobbing grandmother of a 10-year-girl who died last year during unusual psychotherapy that simulates birth, Gov. Bill Owens today signed into law a measure that makes the procedure illegal in Colorado.

Mr. Owens called what happened to the girl, Candace Newmaker, so "horrific" that he had been unable to read newspaper accounts of it.

Dick Wadhams, a spokesman for the governor, said Mr. Owens was unaware of any law in other states similar to the new one here. It was enacted midway through a trial in Jefferson County District Court in nearby Golden, where the two therapists who treated Candace are facing charges of child abuse resulting in death. The girl suffocated after she was wrapped in a blue flannel sheet for more than an hour to simulate birth - or "rebirthing," as the therapy is known.

Candace, the adopted daughter of Jeane Newmaker, 47, of Durham, N.C., was being treated for reactive attachment disorder, in which a child experiences difficulty forming a loving bond with an adoptive mother. Her biological mother lost custody of her to North Carolina state officials over issues of neglect.

The expectation of the two therapists - Connell Watkins, 54, a well- known expert on attachment disorders, and Julie Ponder, 40, who practice in Evergreen, outside Denver - was that as they pushed against Candace with sofa pillows from the outside to simulate contractions, she would fight her way out of the sheet, as if emerging from a womb, and form a close attachment with Ms. Newmaker.

But the procedure went awry almost from the start, when Candace began pleading that she could not breathe and said, "I'm going to die."

The entire 70-minute ordeal was videotaped by the therapists and shown 11 days ago to their jury. The exchanges between the therapists and the girl were so striking that Mary and David Davis, her grandparents, who stood with Mr. Owens today, left the courtroom.

On the tape, Candace is often heard screaming and begging for air, to which one of the therapists is heard to respond, "Scream for your life." One told her that she must die to be reborn.

Candace said, "You mean like you want me to die for real?"

Ms. Ponder, who was on top of the girl, said, "Uh-huh."

"Die right now and go to heaven?" Candace asked.

"Go ahead and die right now," Ms. Ponder said.

Candace appears to have said more than 10 times that she was dying, and seven times that she was vomiting.

At one point, she told the therapists, "You said you would give me oxygen." Ms. Watkins responded, "You've got to fight for it."

Later, after Candace's final word - a faint "no" - Ms. Ponder is heard saying: "Quitter, quitter, quitter, quitter, quit, quit, quit, quit. She's a quitter."

An autopsy found that Candace had died of asphyxiation.

Ms. Newmaker's part in the procedure was to play the role of an expectant mother. She is seen on the tape with her back to the camera, saying she hoped her baby would be a girl, and adding: "I'm so excited. I'm going to have a brand-new baby. I hope it's a girl. I'm going to love her, to hold her and tell her stories. I'm going to keep her very safe. Every day we'll be together, and she'll be with me forever."

After 40 minutes or so, Candace became unresponsive to the entreaties from the therapists. They unwrapped her about 30 minutes later, after which Ms. Newmaker, a nurse practitioner at Duke University Hospital, screamed: "Oh, no, God, she's dead! Look at her! Candace! Candace!"

The videotape was the centerpiece of the prosecution's case, which ended last week. Ms. Newmaker, who was initially charged as well, testified under a grant of immunity.

The defense began putting on its case last Friday, contending that an undetected heart problem could have contributed to Candace's death. On Monday, Ms. Watkins told the jury that she was aware that there was controversy in the technique she used, which she says she learned in 1999 and has used on four other occasions, but that it had been shown to "release the rage" of angry children.

Today, as the videotape was played a second time, she said she had been unaware until Candace was taken out of the sheet that she was in any danger.

If convicted, the two defendants face 16 to 48 years in prison. The trial's outcome aside, it is unclear what practical effect the new state law will have.

Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said it was very difficult for states to legislate against particular therapies or medical interventions, if only because enforcement was such a problem.

"If you try to micromanage every cuckoo cockamamie intervention that Americans can dream up, you are going to have a lawbook that will extend from one end of the continent to the other," he said. "And everybody who believes in the therapy will find 10 ways to circumvent it so that it doesn't meet what's on the lawbook."

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