'Holding' therapist is killed

Death of VanBloem in crash may put an end to treatment in Utah

Deseret Morning News/December 12, 2004
By Jesse Hyde

Larry VanBloem, a controversial Lehi therapist known for his unorthodox treatment of troubled children, was killed Friday in a car accident near Eagle Mountain.

And the type of therapy he spent much of his professional life practicing and passionately defending - known as holding therapy - may have died with him, at least in Utah.

The day before VanBloem was killed, he announced that the two therapists who helped him run the Cascade Center for Family Growth in Orem were leaving but that he would carry on the fight to continue practicing holding therapy in Utah.

Cascade is the state's lone provider of holding therapy.

VanBloem had just finished a therapy session when he was killed. Leaving the Ranches subdivision about 6 p.m., he turned onto U-73 near Eagle Mountain, when his vehicle was struck by an oncoming truck. He died at the scene.

VanBloem was traveling to a birthday party at Cascade for one of his employees and was driving alone. No one else was injured.

"It's tragic. He was a father with children and a wife," said Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon. "There was no suspicion of anything unusual; it was just one of those tragic accidents."

VanBloem is survived by his seven children, all of whom are still living at home, and his wife.

"This man did everything he could to help children in spite of all the opposition he had," VanBloem's sister, Naidra Rowland, said. "He had just finished working with children, and that's when he got killed. He died doing what he loved and believed in."

Other family members and friends contacted Saturday were too distraught to talk.

One of VanBloem's daughters answered the phone at his residence and through tears said her father was "a man everybody loved."

VanBloem was scheduled to appear before the state's Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, which monitors licensed therapists in Utah, next month. The state has been investigating VanBloem since 1997 when a former client at Cascade complained of abuse at the center. A petition filed in 2002 by the state Attorney General's Office sought to revoke VanBloem's license.

The petition alleged that during holding therapy sessions, VanBloem and another therapist, Jennie Gwilliam, lay on top of children face-to-face to induce "belly breathing." VanBloem and other therapists would then restrain the child by "methods including sitting on the child's legs or wrapping the child in a blanket," the petition states.

The state alleged that VanBloem then used his hands and knuckles to press into the child's abdomen and ribs, causing pain. One mother of an 8-year-old patient reported finding bruises on her daughter after therapy sessions.

VanBloem also faced several other lawsuits alleging the same kind of abuse. One was filed last month.

Since the state's petition was filed, VanBloem and his supporters have vehemently disputed it. VanBloem has videotaped testimony from eight parents who say state investigators have twisted their words, that Cascade never abused their children and that holding therapy was an effective treatment.

VanBloem complained that he and the therapy he practiced were largely misunderstood. Last month, he allowed the Deseret Morning News to sit in on a therapy session to show that he did not lie on children or in any way cause them pain during therapy sessions.

Proponents of holding therapy believe that children who have suffered severe physical and sexual abuse often develop reactive attachment disorder, which renders them incapable of forming a healthy bond with their parents.

Through holding (VanBloem often cradled small children in his arms during sessions) and physical prodding to the abdomen area, attachment therapists say they help children release pent-up anger.

What will become of the state's case against Cascade and VanBloem, as well as the lawsuits against him, is unclear at this point, sources said.

"It's an unbelievable tragedy, considering what he's done for children," said Laura Thalin, a supporter and fund-raiser for Cascade. "He left behind seven children and a business that has been left in ruins because of what's been done to him."

Thalin, director of Hope for the Children, a fund-raising arm of Cascade, said a memorial fund has been established at Wells Fargo Bank to help support VanBloem's widow and children.

"They're just about bankrupt," Rowland said. "And I don't know how they're going to get through this."

Rowland said she hopes her younger brother isn't remembered for the controversy that dogged him but for the good he did in the world.

"He had a plaque in his office that said '100 years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in or the kind of car I drove, but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.'

"So many nasty things have been said about him, but all he ever wanted to do was help children. I guess God needed to call him home."

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