State probes 'rebirth' therapists

Denver Post/May 20, 1000
By Howard Pankratz

State officials are investigating two therapists arrested this week in the death of a 10-year-old girl undergoing unconventional "rebirthing" therapy.

The two - Connell Watkins and Julie Ponder - are among four people arrested by Jefferson County sheriff's deputies on suspicion of child abuse resulting in death.

"We have initiated an investigation," said Amos Martinez, program administrator for the state's mental-health licensing section. "We do know one thing for certain. They were practicing illegally because they are not listed as psychotherapists in the mental-health database." Colorado law requires anyone who is not licensed and is practicing psychotherapy to be listed in the mental-health database.

Watkins, who practices out of her Evergreen home and specializes in "attachment" therapy, was arrested early Friday at Denver International Airport as she returned from a trip to Hawaii. Ponder and the other two - Brita St. Clair, the business manager of Connell Watkins and Associates, and Jack McDaniel, an intern - were arrested Thursday.

The four are accused in the death of Candace Newmaker of Durham, N.C., who died last month after being wrapped in a flannel blanket and placed under a pile of pillows to simulate her mother's womb.

The treatment - done in Watkins' home office as part of a $7,000, two-week therapy program - was to help Candace bond with her adoptive mother.

Instead, the girl called out for help repeatedly during the April 18 session and said she couldn't breathe and was going to throw up, an arrest affidavit says.

She stopped breathing and died the next day at Children's Hospital. Doctors said she suffocated.

An autopsy report, released Friday by the Jefferson County coroner's office, also revealed the child was on two psychotropic drugs.

"This is the first time anyone has died of any psychotherapy practice in the state of Colorado that I am aware of," said Martinez, program administrator for the mental health licensing section for the past 10 years.

State Sen. Dottie Wham called the death "appalling." "I've never heard of anything like this," said the Denver Republican, who holds a master's degree in clinical psychology.

The girl's adoptive mother had brought her to Colorado in hopes of curing her of "attachment disorder." The therapy was designed to allow her to be reborn to attach or Watkins`bond with her adoptive mother, Jeane Newmaker. Newmaker could not be reached for comment.

Barbara O'Brien, president of the Colorado Children's Campaign, said parents of children with behavior problems often need help when selecting treatment programs.

The state should "find some way of giving parents assurances that the treatment they are seeking for their child is safe and has some hope for being effective," O'Brien said.

Martinez said Watkins was listed in the mental-health database at one time but let her listing lapse.

"It appears she continued to practice without being listed," Martinez said. He said Ponder had applied for a marriage and family therapist license, but the state has placed a hold on her application in light of the investigation.

Ponder and Watkins have been charged by the agency with practicing outside their area of training, experience and competence and practicing without being listed in the mental-health database for unlicensed psychotherapists.

They could face both criminal and regulatory charges, Martinez said.

Bail bonds reduced

The state has required unlicensed therapists to register for more than a decade to provide oversight and to allow consumers to make informed choices, officials said.

Bond had been set at $250,000 each for Watkins, 53; Ponder, 39; St. Clair, 41; and McDaniel, 47.

But bond was reduced Friday by a judge to $40,000 for Watkins and Ponder and $20,000 for St. Clair and McDaniel. By Friday evening, only St. Clair had posted bond.

A young woman who identified herself as a former patient of Watkins came to her defense Friday, saying she had undergone the "rebirthing" therapy weekly for four years and that it had helped her.

"It wasn't meant to hurt kids," said LaSandra Hueston. "It was to help them to get in touch with their emotions."

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