"Rebirthers" Who Killed Child Receive 16-Year Prison Terms

Larry Sarner

On April 20, 2001, in Golden, Colorado, Connell Watkins, 54, and her associate, Julie Ponder, 40, were found guilty of reckless child abuse resulting in death. In addition, Watkins was convicted of a second felony, criminal impersonation, and of two misdemeanors -- obtaining a signature by deception and unlawful practice of psychotherapy. On June 18, both were sentenced to 16 years in Colorado state prison. Although this is the minimum sentence required for their offenses, the judge noted that "a 16-year sentence is a very strong statement to other mental-health professionals not to do what these defendants have done." What they did, of course, was not merely to kill an innocent and helpless child. They also tortured her for eight days while pursuing a baseless therapy for a bogus diagnosis. Christopher Barden, PhD, JD, LP, president of the National Association for Consumer Protection in Mental Health Practices and an expert witness in the case, believes that the convictions are the first for a psychotherapy-related crime other than sexual abuse of a patient.

My wife Linda Rosa, my stepdaughter Emily Rosa, and I attended the trial every day and took copious notes through it all. During six hours of deliberation, the jury apparently was never in doubt as to the defendants' guilt on the main charge. On April 18, 2000, the two "psychotherapists," together with two "assistants," suffocated 10-year-old Candace Newmaker by wrapping her 70-pound body in a flannel sheet, piling on eight pillows and 673 pounds of adults. Her adoptive mother, Jeane Newmaker, a pediatric nurse practitioner(!), watched the entire episode, and a video camera recorded it. The two assistants and the mother also face charges and will be tried this fall.

The daughter of a teenage mother and violent father, Candace lived in a series of foster homes before her adoption at age five by Jeane Newmaker, a 42-year-old unmarried nurse. During the "rebirthing" therapy, Candace was supposed to fight her way out of the sheet and be "reborn" so she could bond with her adoptive mother. But the videotape of the child's death showed all four adults tormenting the girl during a so-called "rebirthing" session. The procedures used in Candace's case were both physically and mentally dangerous. After instructing her to try to come out of her flannel "womb," the adults did everything they could to frustrate her efforts to comply: blocking her movements, retying the ends of the sheet, shifting their weight, and ignoring her cries for help. As Candace literally struggled and screamed for her life, they answered with taunts such as, "Go ahead and die."

While the jury and the other 65 people in the small courtroom watched and listened to the life ebbing away from a lovely, vibrant, and courageous little girl, all but a few were visibly moved. It was literally enough to make a grown man cry. Tears well up still when I think about what I saw on that tape. I will never be the same.

That was only the fourth day of the 14-day trial. Much more came that was, in some ways, even worse. We saw ten more hours of videotapes of this child enduring unimaginably cruel, degrading, and frankly disgusting practices in what were called "holding" sessions. During one two-hour session, Candace had her face grabbed, with enforced eye contact, 90 times; had her head violently shaken 309 times; and was screamed at just inches away from her face 68 times.

Other "therapy" sessions we watched were similar. During one, Candace's mother laid on her for an hour and 42 minutes, and Candace's face was licked about 21 times. In another session, she had her treasured long hair hacked off into a short, ragged mop. In others, she was required to kick her legs in scissors fashion unto the point of exhaustion. There were many periods in which this naturally energetic 10-year-old was required to sit absolutely motionless for 10, 20, or 30 minutes at a time. Indeed, the last image of Candace we were shown was of her sitting cross-legged, staring blankly at the camera, her face, though still lovely, showing nothing of the smiling, apparently confident girl seen in her fourth-grade class photo. At the last, hers was the face of a torture victim. That image, too, haunts me daily.

Testimony given by the defense, including that of the defendants themselves, indicates that such holding "therapy" has been going on for a decade or more and will undoubtedly continue by others. It has taken an actual death for these culprits to be subject to the criminal penalties they now face, but they deserve the maximum prison sentence for the abuse and indignity they heaped on hundreds of children before Candace.

The testimony in this case has revealed much about the quackery related to Candace's torture:

  • The case began with fear-mongering, a phony diagnosis of "attachment disorder," and the unrealistic worries and hopes of adoptive parents.
  • Then there are the hopelessly unscientific, intellectually vacuous, ethically bankrupt, and pervertedly sadistic beliefs and practices collectively called "attachment therapies."
  • Next there is the motley collection of egomaniacs, sociopaths, charlatans, wannabees, failures, and hangers-on that comprise the community of "attachment therapists."
  • Finally, there is the network of public and private social agencies, licensed and unlicensed social workers, self-promotional workshops and conferences, pseudo-professional cross-referrals, private clinics and residential facilities that uses scare tactics and false hope to recruit desperate (or unrealistic) parents and children to use their services. The evidence in this case revealed a pipeline feeding North Carolina children to Evergreen, Colorado, for victimization. Our independent investigation suggests that there are other pipelines with different intakes and outlets.

The prosecutors in this case, Laura Dunbar and Steve Jensen, did a superb job, both in and out of the courtroom. I cannot imagine how Candace could have had better advocates. I want to note especially how they made the case into an exemplar for handling pseudoscientific offerings of evidence. Whenever the defense tried to introduce testimony about the "efficacy" of the methods used on Candace, they were blocked because there was no scientific validation. When the defense finally got someone accepted as an "expert" on psychology, the prosecution made mincemeat of his testimony about validation and scientific support for the practices at issue. And when the defendants testified that they used therapies without scientific basis for doing so, the prosecution went right for the jugular by quoting from their own codes of ethics, which call for scientific validation of their practices. Whenever a witness would admit a procedure was not validated, the prosecution would accurately label it experimental, and question the ethics of conducting experiments on unwilling children.

Some commentators have noted the arrogance of the two defendants, particularly during their own testimony. They "knew" what Candace's real problem was. They just "knew" what treatment she needed to get better. They "knew" her cries were lies or manipulation. They just "knew" she had enough air to breathe. The following exchange occurred several times:

    Defendant: I use this because it works.
   Prosecutor: How do you know it works?
    Defendant: Because I've seen it work.

In other words, there's no need to use science to think it through or to go through the hard work of collecting good evidence. They thought it up, tried it, have seen what they think are positive results -- and that's that.

The prosecutorial pursuit was gratifying to see. During summation, both prosecutors accurately pointed out that this was a case of "ends justifying the means," rife with pseudoscience, and prejudicial to the health and welfare of the children (victims). The defense did not -- and could not -- refute these charges.

The prosecutors also asked whether children have any right to self-determination and dignity, and whether it is ever proper to torture a child? Given the horrors found in the forensic evidence about this crime, it probably wasn't necessary to raise such questions. Linda and I had prodded them to do so, but we believe it was their own humanity that tugged them to go the extra mile. We are grateful that they raised all the right questions. We are also pleased that the jury gave the all the right answers -- guilty on all charges.

Colorado House Bill 1238 ("Candace's Law"), which became law on April 17, prohibits "reenactment of the birthing process through therapy techniques that involve any restraint that creates a situation in which a patient may suffer physical injury or death." The bill enables misdemeanor penalties for the first offense and makes a second offense a felony punishable by up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. The bill passed both houses of the state legislature unanimously.

Supporters of Connell Watkins have been raising funds for her defense. Although she has engaged a former Colorado Supreme Court Justice to appeal her conviction, both the judge and the prosecution are confident that there is not irreversible error to be found in the carefully prosecuted case.


Mr. Sarner, who resides in Loveland, Colorado, is a member of Quackwatch's scientific and technical advisory board.


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