Seeking Child’s Love, a Child’s Life is Lost
Of all that can be said about Jeane Newmaker--and there is not much, for she has gone into retreat now--what seems most certain is that by last April, she was a desperate woman.
It had been her dream to give and receive affection, to make someone happy, to cradle a needy, grateful child. So at age 42, single and living alone, she adopted a 6-year-old girl, Candace. Newmaker apparently did not get back from Candace what she had expected. Instead, she found herself struggling with an angry, defiant child who--like others from broken, abusive homes--did not want her adopted mother’s love or hugs or parenting.
What followed over the next four years was a litany of troubles. There were fruitless visits to a series of therapists and doctors in their home state, North Carolina. There were numerous diagnoses. There were experiments with various medications. There was, for Jeane Newmaker, a fair share of depression and exhaustion. Finally there was the journey--increasingly familiar among parents in her situation--here to Evergreen, a remote mountain town 30 miles west of Denver.
Evergreen is the epicenter of therapy for “reactive attachment disorder,” a mecca for parents who have been told that’s what their kids have. Fourteen attachment therapists toil in six clinics in this hamlet of 8,000. Theirs is a world regarded by many in mainstream medicine as being filled with “wackos” and “cultists,” but it’s also an expanding world. The number of attachment disorder diagnoses, therapists and acolytes has multiplied in recent years, particularly since the adoptions of traumatized Eastern European orphans began in 1989. Evergreen has become the trail’s end for distraught parents who find that mainstream medicine provides them neither solutions nor understanding.
Connell Watkins--the particular Evergreen therapist chosen by Jeane Newmaker--was among the best known and most controversial in her field. It was to Watkins’ home on Meadow Drive that Jeane and Candace reported last April 10 to begin a two-week intensive therapy program. And it was from Watkins’ home eight days later that someone placed a frantic 911 emergency call.
Even for a mountain town as accustomed to the unconventional as Evergreen, this call sounded unusual. A 10-year-old girl in cardiac arrest; a 10-year-old girl not breathing. Within minutes, two paramedics and a sheriff’s deputy were rolling.
Connell Watkins’ two-story house, which served as both her home and clinic, had a look poised halfway between comfortable and disheveled. Green shutters framed some windows. Scattered out front were a pile of logs, a wheelbarrow, a small red bicycle and--behind a split wood fence--a yard full of toys. As the paramedics’ ambulance pulled up, a man stood on Watkins’ dirt driveway, waiting for them.
We were doing a “rebirthing session,” the man told paramedic Larry Ferree. We left the girl alone for five minutes, then found her not breathing.
Inside, in a small room to the right of the entry, Ferree discovered Candace lying face up on the floor. Above her, Jeane Newmaker was performing CPR, both chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Ferree knelt to examine the girl. She was blue, cool to the touch, without pulse or breath. Her pupils were fixed and dilated, her eyes full of red spots. She’d been down for more than 10 minutes, Ferree gauged. He suspected asphyxia. He thought her prognosis poor.
Ferree looked around the room. He wondered what had happened here. So would all sorts of people, soon enough.
Hours after being airlifted from Watkins’ house, Candace Newmaker was pronounced brain-dead by doctors at Children’s Hospital in Denver. Her severe brain injury, they said, was due to “mechanical asphyxiation,” which occurred while she “was restrained during therapy session.”
A horrible accident, Connell Watkins explained in an e-mail to supporters. We don’t know why this happened. We could never have caused this little girl’s death.
Watkins had videotaped the rebirthing session, though, and the tape provided a somewhat more graphic tale. Investigators watched it over and over with mounting dismay. This is not a horrible accident at all, the Jefferson County district attorney’s office eventually decided. This is a horrible crime.
In late May, prosecutors filed charges of reckless child abuse resulting in death against Connell Watkins and three of her associates. Days later they charged Jeane Newmaker as well, on a lesser count of negligent child abuse resulting in death. Now the trials loom--the first, of Watkins and an associate, is set to begin March 29. “This is a big national issue,” one of the prosecutors told a reporter. “This whole medical approach will be on trial.”
That’s just what many in the world of attachment theory fear. Evergreen therapists, shuddering at the sudden scrutiny from journalists and state regulators, scramble to distance themselves from Watkins. Supporters, including many parents of children she has treated, rise passionately to her defense. Various critics point fingers at mainstream medicine for driving parents into the arms of fringe therapists. Others denounce the Colorado Legislature for allowing unlicensed therapists such as Watkins to operate. Here and there, questions arise about those who expect perfection--or images of themselves--from the troubled children they adopt.
Togetherness and Trips
Through it all, Jeane Newmaker remains silent. Even those who would lynch the therapists shake their heads over this single mother. She is 47 now, a nurse practitioner who treats children at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. She was known by neighbors to be devoted to Candace. How could such a caring, educated woman come to entrust her daughter to a quartet of strangers in a rambling house on Meadow Drive in Evergreen? How could she stand by and watch as unlicensed alternative therapists did this to her little girl?
These are unfathomable questions for most, but not, as it happens, for other parents who have journeyed to Evergreen with their troubled children. Over and over, these parents offer the same refrain when asked about Jeane Newmaker: It could have been us.
Jeane Newmaker, who had never married, adopted Candace in 1996 and brought her to a large two-story brick home on a corner lot near downtown Durham. By all accounts, she was a loving, involved mother. Those who saw them together--Jeane large and heavyset, Candace a pixie with dark hair and eyes--thought they displayed a particularly warm bond. You didn’t know just Jeane or Candace, you knew them both, as if they were a couple. Jeane always showed up at school parties and functions. When school was out, mother and daughter traveled often on vacation. They took trips to the Appalachians, and one to Florida to see the dolphins. They went hiking together, white water rafting, horseback riding.
Once, while vacationing in the mountains, Candace saw a stray dog and asked Jeane if she could take it home. They already had two dogs, but by the time they got back to their Durham house, the dog was waiting. Jeane had arranged for it to be sent, as a surprise.
Walter Wolsczuch, the father of Candace’s best friend, still marvels about the time Jeane took his daughter and Candace to see a performance of “The Nutcracker” ballet. Afterward, they went to an ice cream social, then shopping at the mall. Wolsczuch’s daughter had a blast.
She’d met Candace in the first grade at Easely Elementary School. They shared the same class in second grade, ate lunch together in third grade, and had afternoon play dates every month or so for four years. During that time, Wolsczuch never once heard the two girls argue. What struck him most about Candace was her energy, her eagerness, her ambitions. When Jeane leased her a horse, Candace learned to take care of it as well as ride it. There was always a smile on Candace’s face, always so much joy. Wolsczuch never saw any indications of a problem.
There apparently were problems, though. Once, Newmaker said something to Wolsczuch about Candace being “on medication.” Another time, she said that Candace had attention deficit disorder.
Other accounts, one by a psychiatrist, refer to Candace’s “assaultive behavior,” displayed mostly behind closed doors with her mother. If true, such conduct would be no surprise to Evergreen therapists. Surface charm to outsiders is a hallmark of children with attachment issues, they say. So is defiance to those who would parent them. Both characteristics reflect children who, after enduring severe trauma in their early life, have come to operate in a survival mode, distrusting and refusing close attachments.
Candace undeniably had her share of early trauma. Although adoption records are sealed in North Carolina, it’s known, from an account in the Rocky Mountain News, that Candace became a ward of Lincoln County at age 5, after twice being taken from her birth mother. Candace’s early years involved an angry father, a troubled mother, a household full of marital fights and domestic disturbance calls, constant moves from one ramshackle home to another, unceasing poverty and, finally, at age 3, her parents’ separation. Given all that, it’s not startling to learn that a county caseworker made note of her “angry outbursts and rebellion.”
What’s not clear is whether such conduct meant Candace was severely disturbed, as some therapists would later conclude, or simply a difficult child from a harsh background. Was the treatment being sought by Jeane Newmaker really for Candace, or was it for a mother who longed to be hugged? This type of question colors many attachment cases. It’s often suggested that the parents simply are too strict, or have poor child-rearing skills, or hold unreasonable expectations, or just don’t match up well with their kids.
Objective truth is not possible in a matter as personal as the relations between mother and daughter, particularly when they occur behind closed doors. All that can be said is that Jeane Newmaker made it plain to some friends that she found the girl to be a handful. In fact, Newmaker’s later comments indicate Candace wouldn’t let her adoptive mother hold her or look her in the eye. Newmaker had anticipated a reciprocally loving relationship and instead had found something far more complicated.
It’s known now that Jeane, in between all the vacations, parties and school functions, was taking Candace to a series of doctors and mental health professionals. They visited specialists in attention deficit disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome. They experimented with various therapeutic approaches. They tried mood-altering medications--the amphetamine Dexedrine (for ADD), the antidepressant Effexor, the psychotropic Risperdal.
None of this worked; at least, none of this provided Jeane Newmaker the resolution she by now was so doggedly pursuing. She pushed on, continuing to read and seek out professional advice. She would later describe this process to an investigator as “frustrating” and “emotionally laden.” For so long, she was “trying to hold it together.”
Those few words echo an abundance of testimony offered by other parents in Newmaker’s situation. Over and over, they talk about their “RAD kids”--as those diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder are often called--being charming to outsiders, a terror in their own homes. In stark detail, they describe unceasing wars being waged by remorseless, manipulative kids determined to resist, defy and above all maintain control. It’s like “Chinese water torture,” the parents say. They never get any of “the good stuff.” Instead they get emotional, violent outbursts all day long. Some get hit, shoved, thrown to the floor. Stories abound about kids who disrupt dinners by projectile vomiting, who run hands up visitors’ dresses, who bite dinner guests in the calf, who rip curtains off walls in the middle of the night.
Most moms--it’s mothers whom the RAD kids usually target--end up feeling isolated, not the least because so many neighbors, relatives, doctors and social workers seem to suspect the problem is more with them than their child. What they long for most of all is validation. They want someone to acknowledge that there is a problem with their kid and that the problem has a name.
Somewhere in her constant reading and research, Jeane Newmaker finally came to the mention of such a name--reactive attachment disorder. At a workshop in North Carolina, she heard recited a list of the main symptoms. Inability to give or receive real affection; lack of eye contact on parental terms; extreme defiance and anger; extreme control problems; manipulative, superficial charm; lack of conscience. Newmaker was struck with how closely these symptoms reflected Candace’s behavior.
She began to expand her inquiry into attachment issues. In time, she turned to the Internet. There she found a bonanza: Web sites, discussion groups, chat rooms, links, clinics, bibliographies. Above all, she found other parents--parents with RAD kids, parents with her set of problems, parents who’d already made the journey to Evergreen. With open arms, a whole new community beckoned to Jeane Newmaker.
Rage and Restraint
The notion of attachment disorder has been around for years, but it gained a critical mass in the early 1970s when an Evergreen child psychiatrist, Foster Cline, founded what would eventually evolve into the Attachment Center at Evergreen, now the preeminent organization in the field. There Cline fixed on something he called “rage reduction therapy,” borrowed from techniques developed by a California doctor, Robert Zaslow, in his work with autistics.
Basically, rage reduction meant goading, confronting and physically restraining kids. You pinned them down, you rubbed knuckles in their ribs, you incited them to rage with lots of “who’s the boss” taunting. The goal was to out-power the powerful, to force psychological engagement and surrender when a child would rather withdraw or retain control.
Even those who felt uneasy with these methods had to admit they sometimes appeared to work. Although not a cure-all, they at least helped parents gain access to walled-off kids. Families began to flock to Evergreen, many for two-week intensive programs that involved 30 hours of concentrated therapy. If nothing else, there was a market here, a market that mainstream medicine wasn’t pursuing or addressing.
Soon therapists--some with doctorates, most with master’s degrees in such fields as social work and family counseling--were journeying to Evergreen to get training. New clinics opened, spinoffs from the Attachment Center. Attachment therapy is not a specialty that can be licensed or board-certified--in fact, anybody in Colorado can practice it. Nonetheless, by 1987 reactive attachment disorder was a recognized psychiatric condition listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Only occasionally did the troubling undercurrents to all this make themselves known. Cline’s aggressive techniques looked an awful lot like child abuse to various adoption and social service agencies. Matters came to a head in 1988. Late that year, under general supervision by Cline, two therapists--one of them Connell Watkins--began treatment of a troubled 11-year-old boy from Florida. Days later, the boy ran away and reported to authorities that he’d been abused.
Sheriff’s deputies seized files and videotape. The videotape began to circulate. The Colorado Psychiatric Society filed a complaint against Cline. After review, the Colorado Board of Medical Examiners accused Cline of “grossly negligent medical practice.” In a stipulated settlement, Cline eventually agreed to no longer participate in rage reduction therapy. Soon after, he moved to northern Idaho, where he remains an advocate but not a practitioner of intrusive restraint.
The case jolted other Evergreen therapists. Those at the Attachment Center and elsewhere began to develop more humane methods that didn’t force a child’s utter capitulation. Over time, a new executive director pushed the Attachment Center toward the mainstream, insisting they follow state rules and guidelines.
All the same, Evergreen did not totally transform itself. The centerpiece, and by far the most controversial element of attachment theory, remains a form of treatment called holding therapy.
Even its advocates allow that it’s not always pretty to look at, despite a nurturing essence. The child is held in a cradling position, face up on the therapist’s lap as they sit on a couch. One of the child’s arms is usually placed behind the therapist’s back. The therapist holds the child’s chin with one hand, forcing eye contact. The therapist provokes and confronts, trying to goad the child into venting his rage.
Often the children resist. It is not uncommon for them to writhe and wail in wild-eyed anguish. Attachment therapists don’t mind, for their goal is to force kids to see that they can let go and still survive. If the session goes well, the payoff comes after the rage is expressed, when the child gently cradles in the arms of the therapist or parent, who supports the rage, offering comfort and assurance.
Foster Cline has called this final stage “the joy of surrender.” At various times he and his associates have likened attachment therapy to the “gentling” of a wild horse, to invasive surgeons who must cut open sick patients and to the intrusive treatment Helen Keller received at the hands of Anne Sullivan.
Critics are more inclined toward other comparisons: witchcraft, quackery and brainwashing. If there’s a bond forced by holding therapy, they argue, it’s a trauma bond, such as develops between hostage and captor. There’s no hard proof this method works, they point out, no legitimate research into its effects. There can’t be, for there isn’t even a consensus as to what--if anything--constitutes RAD. It’s a catchall phrase that can include kids with oppositional disorder, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Everything is anecdotal, and everything is vague.
Ronald Federici, a developmental neuropsychologist in Virginia, says: “There are a lot of yahoos out there, professionally untrained to make proper assessments. Anybody and everybody is doing it. Parents are desperate and looking for magical solutions. Sometimes they find what they’re looking for on the Internet. Unfortunately, some of those Web sites and chat groups are peopled with pseudo-experts. Attachment centers are cropping up all over the country. Many of the more extreme people tend to be cultish.”
The world of attachment theory, with its apocalyptic warnings and assorted legal problems, does often seem questionable. A scattering of cases--including ones in Houston; Arlington, Texas; and Midvale, Utah--are particularly troubling. The harshest critics don’t paint a full portrait, however. Left out are the voices of the more temperate therapists, and of those level-headed families who turned to Evergreen simply because they had no alternative. Some went there with qualms, some didn’t find what they sought, but a good number did come away satisfied. They found, if not a cure, a sort of rescue, a kind of solace.
They tell of attending speeches by Foster Cline and pounding their companion’s legs, whispering, “See, see, it’s not just me.” They describe the relief of being understood and supported, of being “not alone, not crazy.” They talk of crying at the Attachment Center because folks there “were describing my child. . . . It felt like they were in my house.”
The testimony of Anne Marie Brown is as representative as any: “We’d heard terrible things about Evergreen. We feared what would happen. But we knew we couldn’t keep going on as things were. We had to do something. Evergreen was the answer. They gave me validation. They said yes, there is a problem, but we can do something about it. My marriage improved. Everything improved. They gave us our lives.”
Among the Therapists
Winding her way through the Internet, Jeane Newmaker came finally to the Web site for ATTACh (Assn. for Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children), an international umbrella organization founded in 1989. At the ATTACh site, Newmaker downloaded a list of recognized therapists. She also downloaded information about ATTACh’s upcoming 11th annual international conference.
It was scheduled, she saw, for Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, 1999, at a Holiday Inn in Alexandria, Va. Foster Cline would be there, talking in a general session on “Keys to Success & Satisfaction With Difficult Kids.” The Attachment Center at Evergreen would be there, offering “An In-Depth Clinical Case Study and Review of Treatment Protocol.”
Newmaker decided she would be there too.
The hotel was jammed when she arrived; 570 people had come from 44 states, Britain and Canada. Tables and booths lined the hotel hallways, offering brochures, books, tapes, posters, T-shirts. Throngs pushed into standing-room-only sessions to hear therapists and watch videos. Rooms filled with lunches, with cocktail parties, with special demonstrations. For three full days it continued, featuring 31 workshops, four general sessions and three keynote speakers.
As she made her way through all this, Jeane Newmaker talked to therapists. She talked to parents of RAD children. She talked to the therapeutic foster mothers who host families enrolled in Evergreen’s two-week intensive programs. It is likely she attended a session on “Children With Reactive Attachment Disorder” led by Bill Goble, a psychologist with a doctorate who hailed from her home state of North Carolina.
After that session, Newmaker approached Goble. They stood squeezed together in the crowded hallway as hundreds pushed by, heading to their next session. Newmaker began to speak about Candace. She described her daughter’s symptoms and the many therapies she’d tried in vain. What’s available, she asked. Who could help us?
Goble studied this woman. He thought Newmaker a very caring mom. Searching was the word that best described her.
He had met so many parents like her. From the start of his practice, he’d seen kids from the two children’s homes that operated in his community. They’d puzzled him as much as Candace puzzled Jeane. He tried everything with them. Nothing worked. He decided he obviously didn’t know how to treat children, so ethically he shouldn’t.
Then he happened to pick up a book about attachment theory. Goble had heard negative things about Evergreen; at one workshop, everyone had talked about this horrible place in Colorado where they were so disrespectful to children. No matter; Goble felt he had no alternative. He traveled to Evergreen, where he trained with Foster Cline and Connell Watkins, who impressed him greatly.
Back in North Carolina, kids under his care started to get better. Maybe, he decided, he wasn’t so bad with kids after all. In time, he took a seat on the board of directors of ATTACh.
At his side now, Jeane Newmaker talked on. She sounded as if she’d tried just about everything and heard every diagnosis.
What’s available? Who can help us?
Goble asked her to fill out a checklist, an inventory of Candace’s characteristics. Soon she was back, sheet in hand. She’d checked off almost all the major common symptoms.
He’d never make a formal diagnosis in such a situation, Goble would later say--but he did make some kind of judgment. Clearly, Goble thought, Newmaker’s daughter very much fit. To him it seemed a fairly severe case. Severe enough that a two-week intensive program might be appropriate.
Goble recommended to Newmaker programs that would let Candace live in a foster home during the therapy. This appealed to Newmaker because it meant she wouldn’t have to stay alone with Candace in a hotel for two weeks; she feared Candace’s rage during the therapy would be even greater than at home.
Could Goble suggest a particular place, Jeane asked.
Some programs give you that live-in opportunity, Goble said, and some don’t. One that does is Connell Watkins & Associates in Evergreen.
Connell Watkins, 54 now, holds a singular position in Evergreen. She’s been there since nearly the start, joining Foster Cline’s group in 1977, not long after earning her master’s degree in social work at Denver University. Although not licensed or credentialed in Colorado, she is regarded as the godmother of attachment therapy, a direct extension of Cline. Other therapists, in their own books, hail her in effusive dedications and acknowledgments. Many describe her as uncommonly intuitive with troubled children; some use terms such as “genius” and “incredibly compassionate.”
At the same time, Watkins is also regularly described as having a decidedly strong personality, “a mind of her own.” Possibly to avoid excessive scrutiny, she chooses to remain unlicensed, something Colorado allows, to much dismay in some quarters. She is known for taking the “worst of the worst” cases and then doing “whatever it takes” to help them. She is also known for believing that she is always right.
When many in Evergreen began to moderate their techniques in the wake of the 1988 abuse case involving Foster Cline, Watkins resisted. She feared the “integrity” of the therapy would be hurt, she told a colleague at the time. She didn’t want to abandon aggressive methods when she felt they were needed. A rift consequently developed between her and others at the Attachment Center, where she was then serving as executive director. In 1992, she left to open her own clinic.
It is possible now to find people who are deeply offended by Watkins. It is also possible to find people who are utterly enthralled.
Annette Krulisky, who works in California as a child advocate on behalf of adopted special-needs children, met Watkins during the Evergreen therapist’s several trips to California, where she has conducted unlicensed sessions in Nevada City, in the foothills east of Sacramento. “Within seconds of walking in our house,” Krulisky said, “Connell was doing a selling job. She sees everything as evidence of attachment disorder. If you don’t do this therapy, she tells parents, you’ll have a Charles Manson. She frightens parents. But she offers what they so want, the love of a child. So they throw away all caution.”
Kathy Lee, a Sacramento mother, brought her 9-year-old daughter, Crystal, to see Watkins in Nevada City in June 1997. “Let’s see if we can piss Crystal off,” is what Lee recalls Watkins saying as she began a demonstration of holding therapy. When Crystal struggled, Watkins put her hand on her forehead and yelled, “So you don’t like yourself very much, do you?” When Crystal grew angrier still, demanding that Watkins remove her hands, Watkins laughed, saying the girl had a terrible case of attachment disorder that needed urgent attention. Lee and her husband thought Watkins brash, crude and brutal. It was, Lee said later, “a $325 lesson for me.”
Others, in singing odes to Connell Watkins, talk of her “pure heart,” of how she fights for families, of how she won’t give up on kids. Gail Trenberth, on the board of directors of both ATTACh and the Attachment Center at Evergreen, and head of the Attachment Disorder Parents Network, is one whose child Watkins treated. “Connell has helped so many different parents,” Trenberth says. “I have great respect for Connell as a therapist and as a human being.”
More vivid testimony comes from Gail Trenberth’s daughter, Angie. Now 21, she was 9 when first treated by Watkins. She’d had years of traditional therapy by then, following an infancy of severe abuse from her birth parents. She viewed life “as a video game. . . . I was manipulating the whole world.”
Then her adoptive mom brought her to the Attachment Center. At Angie’s first session with Connell Watkins, the therapist asked her to take her shoes off.
Why? Angie asked.
Because I told you to, Watkins replied. Make it quick and snappy.
Angie thought, What am I in for?
They began a holding session, Angie across Watkins’ lap. “So I hear you’ve been putting your parents through a lot of crap,” Watkins said. Angie tried to mumble an answer. Watkins demanded she speak up. Watkins also told her to start kicking.
Because I told you to. Quick and snappy.
What the heck is going on, Angie wondered. She was losing complete control. She didn’t like it. But there she was, kicking away.
Watkins asked about her birth parents. Angie mumbled an answer.
Louder, Watkins said.
They used to hit me.
“Here was the first person I couldn’t game,” Angie recalls. “She knew what I was up to. She kept forcing me to answer, speak louder, to shout it out. She was in my face, very confrontational. I tried to charm her, tried to turn away. It didn’t work. She kept right at it, kept right in my face. I was really mad by then, kicking and screaming at her. I spit on her. When I spit, she took the spit off her face and wiped it back on my face. Never spit in Connell’s face. I learned that right away.”
In time, Watkins got what she wanted: Angie screaming not at her, but at her birth parents. My parents beat me. . . . My parents hurt me. . . . I hate my parents. . . . I’m so angry.
Then Angie was crying, true tears, not a game. At that moment, Watkins stopped the inquiry. She reached for Angie, hugged her, held her. You poor child, baby Angie, it’s not your fault, you didn’t deserve this, you didn’t deserve to get hurt.
“Normally I’d pull back from that,” Angie recalls, “but I didn’t. It felt good. By the third or fourth session, I kind of even liked therapy. I would not be here today but for that therapy. I’d be in jail or dead.”
Classic ‘Abused Mom’
Angie’s sessions with Watkins continued for 18 months. She still keeps in touch with her, calling and writing. “Connell is awesome,” she says. “She really knows. She really understands.”
On Jan. 20, 2000, Newmaker signed a contract with Connell Watkins & Associates for a two-week intensive therapy program that called for a payment of $7,000, the going rate in Evergreen. She and Candace arrived at Watkins’ home on Monday, April 10--spring break at Candace’s school--to start the treatment. Like many parents before her, Newmaker felt greatly relieved to be in Evergreen; she believed she finally was going to be getting some help. What particularly impressed her: Connell Watkins seemed to understand Candace’s symptoms and to be familiar with Jeane’s descriptions of their home situation.
Right off, Watkins arranged a medical evaluation. On April 11, Candace and Jeane met Dr. John Alston, an Evergreen psychiatrist whom most of the attachment therapists there use as a consultant. Jeane Newmaker struck Alston as a classic “abused mom,” weighed down by despair and frustration. He found her likable but exhausted. Alston recalls less about Candace. He judged her to be a “severe” case, though, clearly in need of treatment.
The psychiatrist adjusted Candace’s medications, stopping the Effexor she’d been taking but increasing the Risperdal by 50%. Risperdal has a sedating effect that can lead to lethargy, confusion and eventual calm. A prosecutor would later characterize its increased use with Candace as an effort to “modify her mental condition,” but Alston told investigators he acted because of “a long history of assaultive behavior” in the girl’s medical background.
By all accounts available, Candace’s therapy in its first days--which included the typical kind of taunting confrontation--did not progress as well as Watkins’ team had hoped. Candace, they believed, was not “working” hard enough. Apparently, they could not break through, could not get her to engage or erupt in rage.
Helping Watkins were three associates: Julie Ponder, 40, a California-licensed marriage and family therapist with two master’s degrees who’d recently relocated to Evergreen without obtaining a Colorado credential; Brita Lynn St. Clair, 41, Watkins’ office manager; and Jack Dudley McDaniel, 47, St. Clair’s fiance, a high school graduate whom Watkins was paying $700 for the two weeks to serve as an “intern.” To them all, Candace seemed emotionally withdrawn after her medication was changed. St. Clair--at whose home the girl was staying--thought her very bright but becoming passive, a reflective girl who wasn’t violent, belligerent or defiant. Watkins later described her as having “a look in her eyes like nobody was home.”
On April 17, midway through the two-week program, John Alston placed Candace back on the antidepressant Effexor. He did so, he later explained to investigators, to counter her “disassociation.”
That same day, Watkins’ team conducted what is called “compression therapy.” They had Candace lie down on a mat. They wrapped her in a sheet, leaving only her head uncovered. On each side of her, they placed a large cushion. They instructed Newmaker to lie down on top of her child, bracing herself on the cushions to distribute her weight. The notion was to have Candace become “compliant” with her mother, to have the mother control the situation, not the child. The further notion was to have Candace visually connect with her mother, to form some kind of attachment.
After a time, they unwrapped Candace. Jeane Newmaker now was sitting in a chair. They instructed Candace to crawl to her mother and sit on her lap, to lie in her mother’s arms quietly. They gave Newmaker a plate of food to feed to Candace, as if she were an infant at her breast.
Jeane Newmaker sobbed to investigators when recalling this moment: She thought she had a breakthrough, she thought she had connected with her daughter. For the first time, Candace had allowed Jeane to hold her; for the first time, Candace had allowed Jeane eye contact.
The next day, Connell Watkins apparently chose to up the ante, to go further out on a limb she’d long been testing. They would, she decided, conduct a rebirthing session.
Rebirthing is far from common--the Attachment Center’s current staff say they’ve never heard of it--but it is used by at least a few therapists as a form of role-playing and psychodrama. By acting out a fresh start on life, the theory goes, a child can overcome early trauma and forge a bond with a new mother. There are several ways to do this, but the most familiar has the child wrapped in a blanket, head exposed, as others press on pillows to simulate birth contractions.
In the summer of 1999, Watkins learned of a more extreme variation from Douglas Gosney, a California-licensed marriage and family therapist with a master’s degree, who journeyed to Evergreen to exchange techniques and theories with her. There were lots of ways of doing birth simulations, in Gosney’s view. One way was to wrap a child in a sheet “like a mummy,” with the head covered. That’s what he demonstrated in Evergreen.
During Gosney’s two-week stay with Watkins and Ponder, they used his rebirthing method on clients about six times. After he departed, Watkins used it several other times, including once in January 2000 on another family from North Carolina referred by Bill Goble. That family thought it a wonderful experience.
Watkins’ own view, as it happens, was conflicted. She didn’t like conducting rebirthing therapy, she would later tell investigators, and wouldn’t want to go through such a traumatic experience herself. For her clients, though, she was “optimistic that it was effective.”
On April 18, Candace Newmaker’s day at Connell Watkins’ home began at 9:04 a.m. with art therapy. Julie Ponder asked Candace to draw pictures of six items. They then discussed what she’d drawn. On a tripod in a corner of the room sat a video camera, recording their exchange and all that followed.
At 9:35, Ponder began talking to Candace about her upcoming rebirthing session. She described how Candace would be wrapped up, as if in her mother’s womb. She asked Candace, do you want to be reborn to your new mom?
Yes, the 10-year-old said, because her old mom was abusive. Candace talked of being dropped out of a second-story window by her birth mother. She talked about going from foster home to foster home. She wanted to be safe, she said, and not fall out of a window.
Ponder explained more about the rebirthing process: You’ll have a chance to act as a newborn baby. You’ll have to kick and scream and fight through a pretend birth canal. Birth is a hard thing, you’ll need to work hard. It’ll be tight in there but you’ll have lots of air to breathe. When you get through the birth canal, you need to reach out for your new mom.
Candace yawned quite a bit as they talked. Ponder asked if she’d gotten enough sleep. Candace explained that she’d had a nightmare the night before. A nightmare where she thought she was being murdered, that she was going to die.
Maybe, Ponder suggested, you as a little baby thought you were going to die.
Candace agreed, saying she thought she was going to die when she went out of the second-story window.
That’s not going to happen now, Ponder said, because you have a mom who loves you.
For the next 10 minutes, as Ponder and Watkins conferred, Candace remained still and quiet in a position the therapists called a “strong sit.” Then, at 9:44 a.m., Ponder rejoined her. She would be the lead therapist this morning.
Candace was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. She asked if she should take her shoes off. Yes, Ponder said.
The therapist had with her a blue, queen-sized flannel sheet, which she spread on a pad on the floor. Candace stood, went to it and lay down on her left side in a fetal position. Ponder wrapped the sheet around her, tucking in each side. Then she gathered and twisted the top over her head.
Watkins, joining them, placed four pillows around Candace. Jack McDaniel and Brita St. Clair now entered the room. So did Jeane Newmaker. She hoped this day would continue the breakthrough they’d had the day before. She hoped this day would produce some kind of response from Candace.
They positioned themselves around the girl, with Ponder and Newmaker near the top, where Candace would eventually emerge to be reborn. Ponder and Newmaker spoke to Candace through the twisted opening. Then Watkins and her three associates, seated on the floor, began to press on the pillows, pushing in from the sides and top to simulate birth contractions. Newmaker stood to the left and behind Ponder, watching and encouraging Candace to be reborn.
Push, Ponder told Candace.
Candace didn’t push, at least not hard enough, or not in the right way. Repeatedly she asked, “Where do I come out?” She sounded confused, as if she didn’t know what to do. After 10 minutes, she began to plead.
This was hard; she couldn’t do it; she wanted to go to the bathroom; she was tired; she didn’t want to be reborn.
“Whoever is pushing on my head,” Candace cried, “it’s not helping. Please quit pushing on me. I can’t do it.”
They didn’t stop. Watkins and her associates kept pressing on the pillows.
Candace’s protests grew more insistent. Within the first 24 minutes, she told them seven times she couldn’t breathe. Within the first 16 minutes, she told them six times that she was going to die.
“I’m gonna die,” she said, crying, at 11 minutes and 35 seconds into the session.
Less than a minute later: “I’m going to die now. . . . No, I don’t want to die but I’m about to.”
Nearly two minutes later: “OK, I’m dying, I’m sorry.”
Forty seconds later: “OK, I’m dying.”
A minute and a half later: “I want to die.”
Just short of 17 minutes into the session: “OK, I’m dead.”
In response to Candace’s protests, Watkins and her associates increased their pressure on the pillows. To gain leverage, Watkins braced her feet against a couch, Ponder against a brick hearth. Moments later, Ponder and McDaniel repositioned themselves more directly on top of Candace. Together, the four adults weighed 673 pounds; Candace weighed 70 pounds.
“That’s the way the baby feels,” they told Candace.
“Remember you did it once, Candace [being born]. You can do it again.”
“You want to die? OK, then die. Go ahead, die right now.”
Harsh as such comments might sound, Watkins’ team was simply following attachment theory’s fundamental precepts. Parents and therapists alike point out that oppositional, manipulative kids often will claim that they’re dying or can’t breathe, even when being made to do something like shovel snow. In such situations, says Evergreen psychiatrist John Alston, “you need to use ‘paradoxical intention.’ When they say ‘I’m going to die,’ you say, ‘Go ahead and die.’ That way, you defuse the oppositional element. If you respond to it, you buy into it.”
Later, to investigators, Connell Watkins would say of the girl’s pleas: We did not take Candace seriously.
Later, Jack McDaniel would say: We interpreted it as Candace trying to manipulate the situation; as Candace not wanting to work with the therapy.
So they kept pushing, they kept pressing. Off to one side, Jeane Newmaker kept urging Candace to be reborn.
Newmaker would say later she knew “little to none” about Julie Ponder’s background. She was “relying on some basic level of trust” that Watkins knew what she was doing. Watkins, after all, had worked with “lots and lots of kids.”
At 10 minutes and 45 seconds into the session, Candace said, “I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”
You got to push hard if you want to be born, or do you want to stay in there and die?
At 12:05 in, Candace said: “Please let me have some air. I can’t breathe.”
It’s so hard. . . . It’s the hardest thing that you do.
At 12:28: “Please, please, I can’t breathe.”
No, the baby can’t breathe in the womb.
At 16:49: “Can’t you let me have some oxygen?”
You have to be really strong to live a life, a human life.
At 17:07, laboring: “Please, I can’t breathe.”
What else is it like to be dead? You don’t need to breathe when you’re dead.
At 19:48: “Please, you said you would give me more oxygen.”
No, you gotta fight for it.
At 21:21, gagging: “I’m throwing up. . . . I just threw up. I gotta poop, I gotta poop.”
“Ah, I’m going in my pants.”
Stay there with the poop and vomit.
At 27:19, whimpering and gagging: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
You still want to have this baby, Mom?
With that, Candace’s protests stopped. At 31 minutes into the session, she was only whimpering.
“Are you OK?” she was asked.
Candace, gagging, offered a faint “no.”
Over the next nine minutes, Watkins and her colleagues, apparently believing the girl was still resisting, challenged Candace further. Julie Ponder repositioned herself and increased the pressure, exerting herself so much that a prosecutor later described her as making “two grunting noises.”
“She needs more pressure,” Ponder is heard to say on the videotape. “She really needs to fight if she wants air.”
The others repositioned themselves again. Candace whimpered and gagged.
“It’s getting pretty tight in here,” Watkins is heard saying.
“Yep,” Ponder agreed. “Getting tighter and tighter, and less and less air all the time.”
At 40 minutes into the session, Jeane Newmaker asked, “Baby, do you want to be born?”
To that question, they heard another faint “no” from under the pillows. That was Candace’s last word.
Nearly 20 minutes passed. No respiratory sounds at all were audible now. Julie Ponder reached through the pillows and sheet. “She’s pretty sweaty, which is good,” Ponder said. “It’s wet inside there.”
Watkins gestured to her by putting her hand to her own face, apparently an inquiry about Candace’s state. Ponder said, “Oh, I’m not sure. I touched her face and it’s just sweaty. She’s not answered. We could do this forever, just stay here.”
Another minute passed. Jeane Newmaker was distressed now, but not because she sensed danger. She felt rejected, she’d explain later, because Candace wasn’t making the effort to be reborn.
Watkins asked her to leave the room, saying she didn’t want Candace to “pick up on your sorrow.” Newmaker went upstairs and cried. Watkins joined her there briefly, encouraging her not to give up. Then Watkins returned to the rebirthing session, which Newmaker watched from upstairs on a closed-circuit TV monitor.
Moments later, Watkins also asked McDaniel and Brita St. Clair to leave the room. Now Ponder and Watkins were alone with Candace. The two therapists talked together for four or five minutes. Then--70 minutes into the session, 30 minutes after Candace’s last word--they decided to unwrap Jeane Newmaker’s daughter.
Her face was pale and flecked with vomit. Her lips and fingers were blue. Her skin felt clammy. Watkins said, “Oh there she is, she’s sleeping in her vomit.” Watkins called out Candace’s name. There was no response.
Watching on the monitor, Jeane Newmaker heard anxiety in Watkins’ voice. She rushed downstairs. Candace looked so blue to her. In Durham, Newmaker was a nurse who cared for children, so at least now she knew what to do for her little girl. She began performing CPR. On and on she labored, even though she believed that Candace was already dead.
‘Ramifications’ of Death
Of all that has transpired since the death of Candace Newmaker, nothing is more telling than the passionate response of Connell Watkins’ vocal admirers.
The fusillade began with an Internet message from Watkins herself, declaring her innocence--”somehow the 10-year-old inexplicably stopped breathing”--and urging supporters to “pray for a total dismissal of all charges.” Next came the supporters’ Web site calling for letters and contributions to fight “a miscarriage of justice being carried out in the small town of Evergreen, Colorado.” Finally came warnings about “ramifications”--How many more juvenile delinquents will we have? How many of these untreated children will kill another child? How many more Columbine incidents do we need?--if the therapists’ trials went forward. The capstone was a comparison, offered by Foster Cline, that likened Watkins’ situation to “what would have happened if Helen Keller, blind and deaf, had died in the hours-long battles that her young teacher, Anne Sullivan, was forced to put her through.”
During all this, most Evergreen therapists were busy distancing themselves from both Connell Watkins and rebirthing therapy. The Attachment Center’s Web site featured a red blinking press release that made clear it had nothing to do with Candace’s treatment. “Across the country, it’s going to have an impact,” worried Paula Pickle, the center’s executive director. “We fear that agencies and funding sources will back away. We fear that people who write rules and regulations will say there can be no holding. We fear it’s going to drive off people who really need help.”
Of course, that’s precisely what attachment critics ardently desire. It’s not likely to happen, though. There will always be desperate parents struggling with troubled children, whether they’re called RAD kids or not. They will always face limited options, for few exist. So they will always seek alternative therapies, however controversial.
There could be no better proof of this abiding demand than the 12th Annual ATTACh Conference held in Minneapolis early last October. One year after Jeane Newmaker walked the conference’s aisles, half a year after Candace’s death, ATTACh drew an even larger group, some 600 in all. Crowds once again thronged the hallways; therapists once again leaned into microphones and rolled their videotapes.
They were not all “wackos,” no more so than the year before. If some were overly fervent or militant, others radiated gentle probity. The most conscientious met behind the scenes, trying to draft standards aimed at preventing further abuses.
How to tell them from the zealots, how to choose a true savior when you’re at your wit’s end? That was Jeane Newmaker’s challenge, one she failed. I don’t justify what she did, came the whispered comments at the ATTACh conference. But I can see how it happened.
That was all to be heard in Minneapolis concerning the events last April at Connell Watkins’ home. There was no public mention of Jeane or Candace Newmaker. Only an ATTACh membership directory, lying on a hotel counter, provided a visible reminder. There, on page 32, under the Ns, listed as a paid-in-full member, was “Jeane Newmaker, Durham, N.C.” The identity she’d chosen for herself just weeks before Candace died: “Advocate.”
Times researcher Janet Lundblad assisted with this story.
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About This Story
This story derives from numerous sources. They include court documents and testimony; interviews with dozens of therapists, parents, patients and state regulators involved with the world of attachment disorder therapy; interviews with neighbors and therapists who have encountered Jeane Newmaker; multiple visits to Internet Web sites, discussion groups and chat rooms; a review of the existing literature concerning reactive attachment disorder; local Colorado news reports; and attendance at the 12th Annual International Conference on Attachment and Bonding in Minneapolis, Oct. 5-7, 2000.
The passages about events on the day of Candace Newmaker’s death are drawn from legal documents and courtroom statements that describe and quote in detail from the videotape made that day, which remains sealed. Those documents and statements include a sworn affidavit executed by Jefferson County Sheriff’s Investigator Diane Obbema; testimony at a preliminary hearing by Obbema, her supervisor, Sgt. Kristen Tomford, and fire department paramedic Larry Ferre; arguments at the hearing’s close by Jefferson County Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Jensen; and the court’s order, issued by Jefferson County Court Judge Charles T. Hoppin on Aug. 17.
None of those charged in the death of Candace Newmaker were available for interviews, but their comments to Jefferson County investigators are summarized in Diane Obbema’s affidavit and courtroom testimony.