'Rebirthing' Therapist Denies Guilt

June 14, 2001 -- A psychotherapist convicted of reckless child abuse in death of a 10-year-old girl during a controversial therapy still insists the child's death was not her fault.

Connell Watkins will be sentenced on Monday. She faces up to 48 years in prison in the death of Candace Newmaker during a therapy known as "rebirthing."

In the procedure, the child was wrapped in a sheet and covered in pillows to recreate the experience of emerging from the womb.

Watkins, who says she has successfully performed the therapy on several patients, says Candace could have easily escaped from the pillows. "There was no weight on her, she can sit up," Watkins told ABC's 20/20 in an interview airing tonight. "She can stand up."

The therapy, according to its proponents, treats a condition called attachment disorder, which is a failure to trust and bond with parents or caregivers.

For court sketches of Candace's rebirthing, click here.

Troubled Child

Candace was born into poverty and spent much of her childhood in foster homes. When she was 6 years old, she was adopted by Jeane Newmaker, a pediatric nurse from a well-off family.

According to her adoptive mother, Candace was a child who raged uncontrollably, once attempting to set the house on fire. Candace spent years on medication and seeing psychologists, but Newmaker says the sessions often ended with her daughter biting and spitting at the therapists.

By Candace's 10th birthday, Newmaker concluded that her daughter suffered from attachment disorder. She traveled to Evergreen, Colo., where Watkins, an unlicensed therapist, ran her rebirthing clinic.

Watkins describes Newmaker as scared and exhausted. "She was afraid that she wasn't going to be able to hold on to her daughter much longer and she did not want to have to place her out of her home," Watkins said.

The Procedure

The rebirthing procedure took place on the morning of April 18, 2000, three days before Candace's therapy was set to end.

Watkins' assistant, Julie Ponder, told Candace to lie down in a fetal position on a blue flannel sheet. In the corner of the room a video camera recorded the session.

Ponder gathered the four corners of the sheet, twisting it closed above Candace's head. Then the two therapists placed pillows in a tent-like formation on top of the child.

Watkins and Ponder were joined by office manager Brita St. Claire, and her boyfriend, intern Jack McDaniel, neither of whom was a trained therapist.

While Newmaker kneeled at her daughter's head, the other four adults, together weighing more than 600 pounds, alternately pushed on the 70-pound child to simulate birth contractions.

'I'm Going to Die'

In the 40 minutes that followed, Candace yelled out seven times that she couldn't breathe, and six times she yelled out that she was going to die.

But Watkins says such exclamations were not cause for worry. It's common for children with attachment disorder to make such statements, she says. "Our kids talk about dying," she said, "they talk about dying and they talk about killing."

Though there were four adults pushing against the pillows, Watkins insists that it would have been possible for Candace to climb out of the "womb."

"We're just sitting on the ground," Watkins said, "She could push us away easily."

She says if Candace had really been unable to breathe, she would have tried to escape from the pillows. "When kids can't breathe," Watkins argues, "they start struggling to get out of there — they're not just lying there saying, 'I can't breathe, I can't breathe,' They're getting out of the sheet."

'Thought She Was Asleep'

More than 40 minutes into the session, Newmaker, asked, "Baby, do you want to be born?"

Candace quietly responded, "No." It was her last word.

Finally, one hour and 10 minutes after the rebirthing session began, the therapists unwrapped her.

"I thought she was asleep," Watkins said. "There's nothing even then that indicated to us that something really bad had happened."

When they realized something was wrong, Ponder and Newmaker performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Candace, and Watkins called 911.

Watkins was horrified at the outcome, particularly, she says, because Candace's cries for help were normal for patients undergoing the therapy.

"All the things she said earlier were things that other kids would say going through other types of sessions," said Watkins.

'I Know I'm Not a Child Abuser'

The next morning, Candace was pronounced dead at Children's Hospital in Denver. A month later, Watkins and Ponder were arrested and charged with child abuse. Both were convicted. Ponder will be sentenced Monday along with Wakins.

Psychologist and attorney Christoper Barden saw the videotape of the rebirthing and testified as an expert witness for the prosecution in the trial of Watkins and Ponder.

"Holding children down, yelling at them, screaming at them, calling them names ... This is not therapy — this is child abuse," said Barden, an outspoken critic of alternative therapies.

Barden says he does not believe Watkins' contention that Candace could have escaped the pillows and sheet she was wrapped in. "I think that she tried [to escape], I think she tried many times," he said.

Watkins still believes in her rebirthing techniques. "I know I'm not a child abuser," she said. "I know my intent and the techniques we've used has helped hundreds of children."

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