Grandparents campaign on 'rebirthing' therapy

Death of 10-year-old granddaughter leads to call for N.C. legislation banning practice

Charlotte Observer/June 14, 2001
By Erica Beshears

Mary and David Davis have a suitcase full of memories of their granddaughter Candace - birthday photos, snapshots, preschool graduation photos. They packed the suitcase in April, when they traveled to Colorado for the trial of two therapists accused of killing 10-year-old Candace Newmaker during a therapy session called "rebirthing."

The two women were convicted of reckless child abuse resulting in death, and the Davises came home to Lincoln County. But they haven't unpacked the suitcase yet. Their crusade isn't over.

The Davises hope Candace's death will help spare other children. They have asked N.C. legislators to consider a "Candace's Law" that would ban rebirthing therapy. Candace was wrapped in a sheet, covered with pillows and pushed by adults for about 70 minutes, prosecutors said.

Colorado legislators outlawed the practice earlier this year. "I want Candace's suffering to be remembered," David Davis said. "It will also be beneficial to children in North Carolina. Too little is known about what goes on behind closed doors in therapy centers."

N.C. Sen. Austin Allran, R-Catawba, said he may file such a bill. "I think that something does need to be done to prevent any more tragedies like that," he said. The Davises, who are Candace's biological grandmother and stepgrandfather, live in Allran's district.

Candace's April 2000 death in Evergreen, Colo., attracted national attention and put a spotlight on the therapy called rebirthing, which is supposed to create a bond between adoptive parents and their children.

The ABC newsmagazine "20/20" will air a segment Friday about Candace, a beautiful girl with long hair who smiled sweetly in her fourth-grade photograph. And on Monday, Connell Watkins and Julie Ponder will be sentenced for reckless child abuse resulting in death. They face 16 to 48 years.

Candace screamed for help during the session and said she couldn't breath, but the therapists berated her, ignored her and, in some cases, applied more pressure, Deputy District Attorney Steve Jensen said a videotape of the session revealed.

Her adoptive mother watched, Jensen said. After about 70 minutes, the therapists unwrapped the girl and discovered she wasn't breathing. Authorities in Jefferson County, Colo., charged five people in the death. Therapists Watkins and Ponder and two of their employees were charged with reckless child abuse resulting in death. Watkins, who was not a licensed therapist, also was charged with and convicted of unlawful practice of psychotherapy, Jensen said.

Jeane Newmaker, Candace's adoptive mother, was charged with criminally negligent child abuse resulting in death. Newmaker and the two employees will be tried later this year. The Davises plan to attend Newmaker's trial, but they can't afford to travel to Monday's sentencing hearing for the therapists. Instead, they made a victim's impact videotape.

More than a year after Candace's death, Mary Davis still cries when she thinks of her granddaughter. She wants to tell the world that Candace was smart and beautiful and loved by her biological family.

She was born Candace Tiara Elmore in Lincoln County on Nov. 19, 1989. But the Lincoln County Department of Social Services took Candace and her siblings away from her mother because of allegations of neglect when Candace was 5, Mary Davis said. Candace's biological mother is Davis' daughter.

Candace was adopted by Newmaker, a Durham resident, who could not be reached for comment. The girl was diagnosed with reactive-detachment disorder, and Newmaker took her to Watkins and Ponder, who practiced out of Watkins' home, authorities said. Rebirthing therapy is supposed to re-create the experience of birth and allow the child to bond with an adoptive parent.

Jensen, the prosecutor, said it's unclear how common the practice is, but three experts testified that rebirthing is far outside mainstream therapy. "Had (Watkins and Ponder) done any research at all, they would have learned this procedure was very questionable," Jensen said.

Jonathan Gould, a Charlotte psychologist, agreed that rebirthing therapy is not supported by research. But he said he didn't think legislation should ban specific treatment; it should instead address therapists who use untested treatments. Allran said he could not file a bill that would ban rebirthing this year because the bill-filing deadline passed before he heard from the Davises.

David Davis said a ban is necessary to educate people who might not be able to identify untested or unsafe therapy. Davis, a stepgrandfather to Candace, carried her picture in his wallet long after she was adopted. The family had planned to find her when she was older, Mary Davis said.

They are upset that no one notified them after Candace's death. Newspaper reporters from Colorado gave them the news after five months. "We have all been devastated by this," Mary Davis said. "Candace was our baby. We were waiting on her to come home."

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