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2 Convicted in Girl's Death During 'Rebirthing' Therapy

April 21, 2001|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — Two therapists were convicted Friday of child abuse in the death of a 10-year-old girl who suffocated while undergoing a controversial "rebirthing" therapy.

The jurors deliberated for five hours before finding Connell Watkins and her assistant Julie Ponder guilty of reckless child abuse resulting in death. Ponder, 40, fought back tears when the verdict was read in Jefferson County District Court in Golden. Watkins, 54, stared straight ahead.

The pair, who sobbed as they were led away in handcuffs, face up to 48 years in prison when sentenced on June 18.

The girl, Candace Newmaker, suffocated after being wrapped in a sheet and pushed with pillows, a procedure meant to reenact birth. She lost consciousness during the session and died a day later on April 19, 2000.

Watkins also was convicted of three other counts, including unlawfully practicing psychotherapy.

"I hope this sends a clear message that children should not be treated that way in the name of psychology or psychotherapy," Steve Jensen, Jefferson County deputy district attorney, said after the verdict.

Candace's biological grandmother, Mary Davis, cried out in the courtroom after the verdict was read and later told reporters that she was not moved by the therapists' tears.

"They cried for themselves but not for Candace," she said.

Attorneys for Watkins and Ponder did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Ponder's defense attorney, Joan Heller, told jurors in her closing argument that "this was not child abuse. This was done for therapy. This was done for all the best intentions--to try to make sure that this child got a chance."

The therapists' lawyers had variously argued that a heart defect and high altitude may have caused the death.

The often sensational three-week trial drew attention to the rebirthing practice, which has been debunked by psychotherapists and other professionals. A handful of the therapy centers are based in Evergreen, a quiet town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

On Tuesday, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens signed a bill to outlaw the practice. Owens called the child's death "horrific" and said he stopped reading about the trial because it was too upsetting.

The rebirthing procedure has been used to treat reactive attachment disorder, a difficulty or inability to form relationships because of early trauma. The principle behind the treatment is to reproduce the womb and the birth process. Once the patient emerges from the womb, he or she is embraced by the parents and supposedly able to form normal bonds.

Jeane Newmaker, Candace's adoptive mother, had brought the girl from their home in North Carolina to Watkins, who ran a rebirthing clinic out of her home in Evergreen. Newmaker had adopted the girl at age 6 and said that since then she had had difficulty controlling Candace's wild, often aggressive behavior. After trying other forms of therapy, Newmaker said she contacted Watkins as a last resort.

In the procedure, Watkins and Ponder wrapped Candace in a flannel sheet, which was to represent the womb. The two women pushed against Candace with pillows to simulate contractions. They urged the girl to fight her way out, as if coming out of a womb, and join Newmaker.

Newmaker was present during the session, and she faces trial in November on charges of criminally negligent child abuse resulting in death.

Watkins testified that she had learned the technique from 'New Agers' in 1999 and had performed it four other times, saying she found it to be effective in releasing the rage of some children.

This time, however, the procedure went terribly wrong.

The prosecution's most damning evidence was a 70-minute videotape of the session. On the tape, the therapists can be heard mocking Candace's cries for help, calling her names and discussing other matters while the child begged for air.

Candace repeatedly told the therapists that she couldn't breathe. She told them she had vomited and defecated. One therapist responded, "Scream for your life."

The girl repeatedly said she thought she was going to die, and one of the women told the girl she would have to "die" to be reborn.

"You mean like you want me to die for real?" she asked.

Ponder, who was sitting on top of the child, replied, "Uh-huh."

"Die right now and go to heaven?" Candace asked.

"Go ahead and die right now," Ponder said.

In the rebirthing role-playing, Newmaker tried to cheer up Candace, say she was looking forward to holding her newborn baby girl in her arms.

The videotape, which visibly upset many of the jurors, showed how Candace's urgent cries for help slowly quieted. After about 50 minutes, no sounds came from the tightly wound sheet.

When the women unwrapped Candace, Newmaker screamed, "Oh, no, God, she's dead!"

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Associated Press contributed to this story.

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