Evergreen chock-full of therapists

California therapist taught technique that ended in girl's death

Rocky Mountain News/May 21, 2000
By Carla Crowder

When 10-year-old Candace Newmaker died after being bound in a flannel blanket with pillows piled on it, her Evergreen therapists were performing a birth simulation that their trainer said he's done 500 times with no ill effects.

California therapist Douglas Gosney spent two weeks in Evergreen last year exchanging techniques and theories with Connell Watkins.

Watkins taught him how to help children with reactive attachment disorders, often hostile, angry children with no trust of their parents.

Gosney taught Watkins ways to treat children who suffered trauma at birth, either from attempted abortions or nearly dying as they were born.

From what Gosney has heard, Candace's case started out quite normally for this technique: The child's begging for help. The lack of air holes in the blanket. Her claims that she couldn't breathe.

"It's very typical for them to say 'I'm afraid. I'm dying. I feel like I'm dying,"' Gosney said. "It never has happened." Until Candace.

The fourth-grader from Durham, N.C., was smothered during birth-simulation therapy in Watkins' Evergreen home-office April 18. Watkins and three assistants, including Julie Ponder, also trained by Gosney, have been charged with child abuse resulting in death.

In the aftermath, the death has shed light on this alternative psychotherapy, known as rebirthing, birth-trauma patterning or holding therapy. These treatments are largely unregulated in Colorado, where psychotherapists can hang a shingle with no license and start seeing patients, including young children.

While some practitioners defend birth simulation as life-saving for deeply disturbed children, other psychologists say it's a dangerous, maverick approach with no proven results. Even arriving at a clear definition of "rebirthing" is difficult. Some therapists use the term to describe a breathing technique, others use it as Watkins does, a birth simulation.

"The idea that they were going to put them on a blanket and sit on them is totally absurd," said Phil Shaver, a University of California-Davis psychology professor. "There is no evidence that rebirthing would be good for you or would make any psychological sense at all."

Evergreen has become a mecca for desperate parents over the past 30 years. The Jefferson County town is home to several well-known attachment disorder centers. Children with these problems often are in foster care or adopted, like Candace Newmaker.

Shaver was bombarded with overwhelmed parents when he co-hosted an Internet chat group on attachment disorders.

Every day, parents would log on to the site and tell terrible tales of violent children. Parents would describe their children as "future Jeffrey Dahmers," abusive to the point of violence against family members and pets.

In response, another member of the group would chime in with a tip about one or another of the Evergreen therapists.

And every day, Shaver would offer a counter to what he considered a charlatan's suggestion.

"I see that you're desperate and I'm speaking as a researcher and a parent," Shaver would write back. "The desperation doesn't justify trying these quack kind of methods."

Throughout the country, these therapies are constantly evolving. Psychotherapists are encouraged to try creative techniques, and often learn from each other at seminars or informal gatherings such as Gosney's visit with Watkins last summer.

"I was able to give her a few things that I think were helpful to her," Gosney said in an interview Friday.

When questioned about her training in "rebirthing" or birth simulation, Watkins cited Gosney as an "expert." All of her training in the technique came from him, according to the arrest affidavit.

Gosney, a licensed marriage and family therapist and past president of the Los Angeles chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, has been doing what he calls "re-patterning birth trauma" for 10 years.

Children with these issues have a high level of mistrust, often because of harmful experiences even before they were born. "If your own mother tries to kill you, how can you trust anybody?" Gosney asked.

He described how a therapist places a child in an atmosphere that simulates the womb.

The goal is to show the child that just because they went through trauma at birth doesn't mean they must continue reliving that pain with violent outbursts.

"There are lots of different ways of doing it and therapists can be creative in how they do this," Gosney said."For example, just holding a child tightly can trigger birth memories."

Or a therapist and a parent can wrap the child in a sheet "like a mummy," Gosney said.

In Candace's case, the top of the blanket was twisted to keep her inside. The child smothered, and was found in her own vomit when Ponder and Watkins unwrapped her after more than an hour.

Gosney said air holes for breathing have never been an issue with him. He compared the setup to sleeping with blankets over one's head. You can still breathe through the cotton, he said.

Gosney was skeptical that the therapy caused Candace's death. "It makes me wonder about what pre-existing conditions the child had," he said.

Another child therapist who worked with Watkins years ago has purposefully distanced himself from these kinds of treatments.

Michael Orlans, of Evergreen Consultants in Human Behavior, got a jolt when a child in his care complained to authorities, resulting in an investigation by the state attorney general's office. Watkins was present for that session in 1988.

"Basically, that whole incident was a blessing in disguise for me," Orlans said Friday. "It made me really evaluate what we did, and I never did it that way again."

Twelve years ago, he and Watkins held a child tightly, shouted at the boy and encouraged him to curse back at them. It's called rage-reduction therapy.

"Even though it worked, it never looked good, it never felt good, it was too intrusive," Orlans said.

Now he practices more gentle, nurturing forms of therapy on troubled children and has been a major advocate against the confrontational, restrictive techniques.

Orlans was not even versed in rebirthing. "The only thing I've ever heard is people using it in hot tubs," he said. As for Shaver, he finally could no longer take the parents' daily desperation. He wrote a "swan song message" and quit offering advice on the Internet.

But the hopeless parents and the profusion of sloppy therapy still trouble him. "There are a lot of people out there who don't know what to do with their children," he said. "And they aren't happy with the services they're getting."

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