Therapist has strong defenders, foes

Date: 2000-10-29

Peggy Lowe and Carla Crowder
Denver Rocky Mountain News

In Colorado, Watkins found few regulations governing her practice of unorthodox sessions Connell Watkins is a hero to her defenders, a New Age quack to her detractors.

The nationally renowned therapist explained "rebirthing" therapy to the Jefferson County sheriff's detectives who responded to the 911 call on April 18.

But she just as quickly became worried that people viewing a videotape of the fatal therapy session wouldn't understand.

"The video's going to hang us," she said.

Vintage Watkins. Blunt, outspoken, unafraid of authority.

Many in the attachment community call her a gifted therapist who works miracles on children.

"Families sing her praises up and down," said Gregory Keck, director of the Attachment and Bonding Center of Ohio. "Their kids end up normal, and they can keep them."

But Watkins' critics accuse her of taking $100 an hour from desperate parents willing to try anything.

"She's ministering to a group of people who feel they have nothing to lose now," said Annette Krulisky, a California adoption advocate. "Connell is very oppressive, very abrasive, very arrogant."

Neither Watkins nor her attorney would comment. Watkins, 54, moved to Colorado from Washington state nearly 30 years ago, landing in a state tailor-made for a maverick therapist.

State law required nothing of unlicensed therapists until 1988, when a regulation was passed requiring them to be listed with the Mental Health Grievance Board. The listing at least gave the board an avenue to track complaints.

Before that, if a patient was wronged, a malpractice lawsuit was the only recourse, said Amos Martinez, administrator of the Colorado Mental Health Grievance Board.

But even after the law changed, Watkins didn't register.

"We didn't even know of her until May 1995," Martinez said.

When Watkins finally submitted her listing, she said she hadn't registered under her own name because she'd been in training under other therapists. She probably practiced illegally until 1995, Martinez said, but the board couldn't prove it and never took action. At the time of Candace's death, Watkins' listing with the board had lapsed.

Martinez guesses that there may be as many as 200 Colorado therapists with expired listings, but the board rarely goes after them.

"We really don't have the staff we need to do the proactive work that needs to be done," he said.

The board shares two investigators with 29 other state oversight boards, including cosmetology, pharmacy and veterinary.

"The system protects the practitioner and not the public," said Linda Rosa, director of the Colorado chapter of the National Council for Reliable Health Information.

Watkins is charged with felony child abuse in Candace Newmaker's death. She also faces charges of impersonation for using another therapist's license number, of deceiving Jeane Newmaker about that license and of practicing without being listed in the state's database.

Julie Ponder, 40, the other therapist involved in Candace Newmaker's death, is licensed in California but not Colorado.

Watkins and Ponder, as well as Brita St. Clair, 41, and Jack McDaniel, 47, the assistants in the Newmaker case, have been banned by the board from practicing in the state.

In the beginning, Watkins simply wanted to help children others had given up on, said Darrel "Hap" Watkins, her ex-husband. "She felt called to work with these last-resort kids."

Watkins graduated from the University of Denver with a master's degree in social work in 1973.

The Watkins family moved to Fort Collins, where Connell Watkins worked as a social worker for the state. Another move took them to Evergreen, where Watkins hooked up with Dr. Foster Cline and a group of therapists at Evergreen Consultants who were earning a reputation for treating severely disturbed children.

Cline and Watkins began focusing on the problems some adopted children have in bonding and showing love. Their work grew in reputation, but at least one earlier case went bad. Cline, Watkins and another therapist were working on an aggressive 11-year-old boy in 1988.

They cursed at him, restrained him, and twisted him into a painful position, the attorney general's office found. Cline, according to the attorney general, had engaged in "grossly negligent medical practice."

Although criminal charges were ultimately dropped, the state banned Cline from practicing holding therapy in Colorado. He moved to Idaho in 1995. Watkins was allowed to continue working with children.

Krulisky, the California adoption advocate, has known Watkins for a decade. In the mid-90s, she sought help for a friend's child. Watkins called the boy "stupid," wrapped him in blankets "like a burrito," Krulisky said, and told his mother to yell at him.

He wet his pants, but Watkins wouldn't stop, even when the mother begged to end the session. Watkins lashed out, saying "Do you want to bond with him or not?" After two days, Krulisky's friend ended the therapy despite Watkins' rebukes, paying Watkins $1,200.

Now, Krulisky marvels at how Watkins' loyalists are taking up for her, starting a legal defense fund and sending her prayers through Web sites and online newsgroups. She calls it the "cult of Connell." Krulisky and her friend, who asked not to be identified, wish they had spoken up sooner.

"We saw it coming and now a child is dead," Krulisky said. "It makes us feel awful. Just awful."

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