April 15, 2001
Rebirthing Therapist Worked Miracles,
But Critics Say Techniques Border On Quackery
One of the two psychotherapists on trial
for allegedly causing the death of a 10-year-old girl during a
"rebirthing" session worked miracles with severely troubled
children, supporters said.
Prosecutors and critics, however, have
portrayed the techniques used by Connell Watkins as part of a
fringe movement bordering on quackery.
Watkins, 54, and Julie Ponder, 40, are
charged with reckless child abuse resulting in death, a felony.
Candace died a day after the April 18, 2000, session, in which
she was completely wrapped in a flannel sheet to simulate a
Doctors testified last week that she died
Watkins, who may testify this week, is
known for her work with reactive attachment disorder, which
makes children resistant to forming loving relationships and
frequently violent and unmanageable. Her supporters believe that
she reaches children in ways traditional treatments cannot.
"I was impressed with the level of insight
she had into children," Bill Goble, a North Carolina clinical
psychologist, testified Friday.
Defense lawyers said that Candace's death
was a tragic accident.
The girl was told to kick out of the sheet
to be reborn to her adoptive mother, Jeane Newmaker, who said
that Candace was violent and out-of-control.
But on a videotape of the session, Candace
can be heard screaming that she can't breathe, has vomited and
defecated and wants to die. The therapists, Watkins' office
manager, Brita St. Clair, and St. Clair's boyfriend, Jack
McDaniel, taunt Candace and casually talk while pushing on her
to simulate labor pains.
Seventy minutes after she was wrapped up,
Candace is uncovered and found not breathing. Ponder and
Newmaker, a nurse at Duke University Hospital, are seen
frantically trying to revive her.
Several jurors and audience members cried
when the videotape was played in court on April 5.
The tape has been key to the prosecution's
case. Dave Ziegler, director of a Eugene, Ore., treatment center
for children with attachment disorder, testified Friday that he
thought that the rebirthing and earlier taped sessions showing
Watkins restraining and yelling at Candace were cruel.
The defense, which began its case Friday,
has raised questions about Candace's health and whether the
combination of medications she was on caused her death.
A North Carolina mother whose 8-year-old
adoptive daughter went through rebirthing with Ponder and
Watkins in November 1999 called it "the best thing" for the
"When she came out and I held her in my
arms, it was the first time her little eyes really sparkled and
connected with mine," said Pam Molinatto, from the Durham area.
A tape of the earlier session, however,
shows Molinatto's daughter, Tanya, being helped out of the sheet
just three minutes and 51 seconds after the start. When Tanya
said that she had to go to the bathroom, Ponder said that the
rebirthing wouldn't take long and asked if she could wait.
"It seemed relatively responsive and
compassionate, didn't it?" asked prosecutor Steve Jensen.
"Yes," Molinatto replied.
She also responded that she didn't know
Watkins had done only two or three similar sessions before her
daughter's. She wasn't told of potential risks or alternative
therapies, she said.
Psychologist Goble defended Watkins'
methods, saying that he has referred many people, including
Newmaker, to her practice in Evergreen. Newmaker paid $7,000 for
a two-week program.
Goble said that grabbing children's faces,
screaming at them and making them scream back isn't appropriate
for ordinary children, but is for those with attachment disorder
because they need to confront their rage.
The children are dealing with fear, grief
and sadness and need to get in touch with their emotions, give
up control to and trust adults, Goble said.
"They are very deep emotions. It's like an
infection. In order for the healing to begin, it has to be
drained off," he said.
The case is expected to go to the jury
later this week. If convicted, Ponder and Watkins could face up
to 48 years in prison.
St. Clair and McDaniel will be tried in
September on the same child-abuse charge.
Newmaker, 47, is scheduled to be tried in
November on a lesser charge of criminally negligent child abuse.