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Alternative therapies not new in Evergreen

By Karen Auge
Denver Post Medical Writer

June 17, 2000 - William Goble had never seen the darkhaired woman before.

The North Carolina therapist had just finished speaking at a conference about reactive attachment disorder, how it damages kids, how it can be fixed, when she approached.

The woman, her arms loaded with folders and papers, said her name was Jeane Newmaker. She wanted to talk about her 10-year-old daughter, Candace.

She told Goble she had adopted Candace nearly four years earlier. But the girl wouldn't let her mother hold her, look her in the eye, love her. So Newmaker had traveled from her home in North Carolina to the therapists' conference in Virginia for advice.

"My sense was she finally had gathered enough information on her own to figure out what was going on," Goble said. "And she was now looking for information about how she could get help." That day last October, Goble told Newmaker about the place in Colorado where he'd first learned about reactive attachment disorder, where he'd first watched therapists treat the impossible kids who'd been diagnosed with it. He gave Newmaker the same referral he'd given to dozens of other patients.

Go to Evergreen.

In April, she did. Days later, a "rebirthing" therapy went horribly wrong and her daughter was dead. And Connell Watkins, the therapist Newmaker paid $7,000 to help Candace, is charged in the girl's death. Three of Watkins' colleagues and Newmaker also have been charged.

For children across the country who can't love and won't be held, who hurt people and torture pets, who make every day a white-knuckle wild ride for their parents, Evergreen is mecca. And has been for nearly three decades.

For years, the Attachment Center at Evergreen was the place nationwide for treating children with reactive attachment disorder and for training therapists to work with them. Now, there are others, but many are run by Attachment Center proteÚgeÚs.

The treatments developed and practiced in this little mountain town 30 miles from Denver were unconventional and controversial long before Candace Newmaker died wrapped in blankets and surrounded by pillows in a bizarre ritual that was supposed to allow her to be "reborn" to a loving mother.

In fact, Candace Newmaker is not the first child to die under Connell Watkins' treatment.

In 1990, while Watkins was the Attachment Center's clinical director, a 13-year-old girl died of an aspirin overdose. The death, ruled a suicide, resulted in a state investigation and a wrongful-death lawsuit. The State Grievance Board found no grounds to discipline the therapists involved, but in a letter, the board expressed concern about the "loose supervision methods" they employed.

Evergreen started life as a logging town, but by the 1920s had become a summer hangout for anyone who wanted to slap on a cowboy hat and ride the range. In the 1970s, a psychiatrist named Foster Cline found his way here.

And New Age met Old West.

As early as the 1940s and 1950s, psychiatrists had started looking at what became of babies left alone in foundling homes or separated from their parents for long periods.

They found that babies who didn't get held or loved grew into emotionally detached, unloving, untrusting, withdrawn children. Or they simply died.

It wasn't called reactive attachment disorder then. And hardly anybody was proposing a way to treat it.

Cline did that.

For kids so severely damaged, Cline reasoned, "talk therapy," lying on a couch having a conversation with a listening therapist, wouldn't cut it.

With his research, his theories and controversial new treatment, Cline and a board of directors founded the Attachment Center at Evergreen 28 years ago.

Some of Cline's methods caught attention right away.

In 1976, Cline and the center, then called the Evergreen Development Center, made headlines when Denver's Child Protection Team decided the center had abused a young girl by bruising her during something Cline called "Z therapy." During the treatment, the girl, who reportedly had threatened to kill her foster mother, was held down by four people while a psy chiatric social worker from the center manually manipulated her ribs and mouth.

In a 1976 interview with The Denver Post, Cline said the therapy was designed to "mobilize" a child's rage and anger. By the time kids with these kinds of problems started showing up at Goble's North Carolina office about a decade ago, Cline's work had become the center of the growing attachment disorder universe.

Goble knew only a little about reactive attachment disorder. If he was to learn more, he would have to go to Evergreen.

"When I got started in my training, it was the only place" to learn how to treat the disorder, he said. Now, Goble said, there are a few other places across the nation, many run by former Attachment Center proteÚgeÚs.

So eight years ago, Goble said, he came to Evergreen. He sat in on therapy sessions and talked about the center's treatment philosophy with its leaders, Cline and Watkins.

Cline's new theories and breakthrough treatments brought a lot of people to Evergreen.

Some went away repulsed; others took Cline's teachings home with them. Still others stayed and became Cline disciples.

Watkins stayed.

She had graduated from the University of Denver in 1973 with a master's degree in social work. And social work is what she did for a while. But by the mid-1980s, Watkins had found her way to Evergreen and into Cline's orbit.

Ten years ago, when Cline and Watkins worked together, "she was a hot therapist. She was so hot because she was willing to do nontraditional things," said Cline, who is retired and lives in Idaho.

"I think she's a real courageous therapist. Anybody who does nontraditional things in today's world has to be courageous." Colleague after colleague describes Watkins as a therapist who cares enough to get involved with her patients, who seems to thrive on the challenge of the toughest cases.

"Seems like every time I'd see her, she'd have some little kid she was taking care of for the weekend or treating whose mother couldn't afford to pay or the mother couldn't handle the kid and Connell knew she could. I used to almost feel sorry for (Watkins' daughter)," Cline said, forever having to share her home with her mother's disturbed young clients.

But during Watkins' reign at the Attachment Center, not everything went smoothly.

In 1990, 13-year-old Andrea Swenson died while being treated at the center.

Andrea, from Tulsa, Okla., came to the center after years of other treatments had failed, said her mother, Greta McNac.

The Attachment Center told McNac that her daughter, who had been adopted from an Austrian orphanage, was so damaged that she needed months of care and should stay in Colorado with what the center called its "highly trained" therapeutic foster parents.

From the beginning, McNac said, she was skeptical, and she admits she was considered a troublemaker by Attachment Center staff.

"I saw my daughter forced to run in place until she said something. She ran for an hour and a half because she didn't want to say what they wanted her to say," McNac said in a recent interview.

Nevertheless, Andrea seemed to be making progress and her treatment continued fairly uneventfully, until McNac's insurance company announced it would no longer pay the $3,500-a-week treatment costs.

Then Watkins and the foster parents began pressuring McNac to let the foster parents adopt Andrea so the foster parents' insurance would pay for the treatment, McNac said.

McNac admits acting as if she would go along with the idea, but insists she secretly planned to come to Colorado and snatch her daughter away from the Attachment Center.

"I never got to do that. She died two days before I got there," McNac said.

She died, according to a medical examiner's report, of an overdose of aspirin.

According to court documents filed as part of McNac's wrongfuldeath suit against the center, Andrea became violently ill during the night of Nov. 8, 1990.

The next morning, Andrea was still vomiting and stayed home from school. Her foster father later told police she seemed incoherent and her breathing was heavy.

Nevertheless, the foster parents went bowling.

That afternoon, a relative of the foster parents found Andrea lying in the hall, not breathing. When paramedics arrived, the girl was dead.

In depositions, the foster parents admitted keeping the anti-psychotic drug lithium and other drugs in open containers on the kitchen table. And they acknowledged that the day before Andrea died, she asked what would happen if she slit her wrists or took an overdose of drugs. Both times, her foster parents replied that she would die, according to their depositions.

Although her foster parents said Andrea came home from school Nov. 7 and reported she had been sexually molested by schoolmates, McNac said she will forever be convinced her daughter didn't want to die, that she was upset because she had been told her mother was giving her up.

"What upsets me most is that she died with the thought that another mom had just kicked her to the curb," McNac said.

McNac said she agreed to settle her suit out of court for $60,000, but wouldn't agree not to discuss it publicly.

Where once there was only the Attachment Center at Evergreen, now there are Connell Watkins & Associates and a half-dozen other treatment providers around town.

But the Attachment Center has distanced itself from Watkins - its former executive director - and also from Cline, its founder.

Days after Watkins, her associate Julie Ponder and the others were arrested last month, the center released a statement saying it never used anything called "rebirthing therapy." Paula Pickle, who became the center's executive director in 1994, has slowly moved the institution toward the mainstream and made sweeping changes since Watkins' departure, said current clinical director Forrest Lien.

The staff is still small - most of the center's therapists are outside contractors. And the nonprofit center couldn't handle a caseload much bigger than its current 50 children a year, Lien said.

And though the foster parents who cared for Andrea Swenson remained on the Attachment Center's payroll through 1997 - tax records show the center paid them $50,000 that year - Lien says the center has severed its relationship with them.

The Attachment Center, licensed by the state to place kids in foster homes, provides extensive training to its foster families, Lien said. And each of those foster families has personal experience with an attachment disorder child, he said.

The center has never done rebirthing, Lien said. But some of the other more physical treatments it did use have been discarded.

While that philosophy may have brought more acceptance and may have helped mend the center's once-fractious relationships with some local social service agencies, it has caused a rift with practitioners who think the center isn't as aggressive in treatment as it should be.

Those differences were what drove Connell Watkins to step down as the center's executive director in 1992.

"There wasn't a mutual agreement about where we were going," Lien said.

When Watkins left, a few therapists followed her. So did Brita St. Clair, whom Watkins hired as her office manager. St. Clair had been part of the center's stable of therapeutic foster parents.

Soon Watkins began attracting her own consultants and staff. Julie Ponder, a California licensed therapist trained in rebirthing therapy, came to Colorado to work with Watkins.

And Jack McDaniel, who two years ago was living in Loveland installing drywall, became an intern with Watkins.

On the day four years ago that she officially adopted her only child, Jeane Newmaker took Candace around her Durham, N.C., neighborhood and introduced her "new daughter." "She was excited when she adopted Candace," recalled one neighbor who asked not to be identified. "She was like a new mother." Those neighbors didn't know much about Candace's life before she came to live with Jeane Newmaker, or whatever it was in her past that continued to trouble her.

Over the years, people on Jeane Newmaker's block saw Candace riding her bike and would chat with the mother and daughter at parties and neighborhood get-togethers.

Whatever problems Jeane, a nurse practitioner at Duke University Medical Center, was having with her daughter, she kept them to herself. But behind the neat doors of her two-story house, Jeane Newmaker was trying everything she could think of to fix her broken daughter.

Conventional therapy and medications came first, according to Jefferson County records.

Neither worked.

She consulted experts in attention deficit disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder and educated herself in bipolar disorder. Then she came across articles on reactive attachment disorder, Newmaker told police.

She found an attachment disorder workshop in North Carolina, where she heard therapists talking about kids who acted like Candace, according to police reports.

And in January, Jeane Newmaker started taking Candace to a North Carolina therapist who treated her for reactive attachment disorder.

Now that Candace is dead, some of Newmaker's neighbors said they can hardly believe that someone like her - someone so well-educated and surrounded at Duke by some of the best minds in medicine - would try something as off-thewall as rebirthing therapy.

"It's hard for me to believe anyone of her intelligence would subscribe to this sort of treatment," said Ruth Dailey. "The procedure itself just seems so inhumane to me." But Susie Kernodle understands.

For nearly 10 years, she and her husband had taken their foster daughter from one therapist to an other, tried one treatment after another.

The girl, now 13, is a textbook description of reactive attachment disorder: She tortured the family's dog, urinated around the house, spit on people.

Eventually, the Kernodles, who also live in North Carolina, took her to Bill Goble.

Then in January, at Goble's suggestion, the Kernodles came to Evergreen for 10 three-hour therapy sessions over two weeks with Connell Watkins & Associates.

"I didn't have a clue (about rebirthing therapy)" Susie Kernodle said. "I knew a lot of stuff was nontraditional, but that was OK because traditional therapy didn't work." The Kernodles lived for two weeks with a Silverthorne foster family hired by Watkins.

The rebirthing session came at the end of the first week.

Kernodle remembered that the lights in the room were dimmed, and soft music played, and her daughter was wrapped in "a light blanket." Julie Ponder was there, and so was Neil Feinberg, who Kernodle said was her daughter's primary therapist during the two weeks, and the Silverthorne foster mother. "Connell was in and out, she would check on how things were going," Kernodle said.

"I was there the entire time. I could reach out and touch the blanket. We were right there, I'm talking to her the whole time," Kernodle said. "There was no reason to be scared. There was nothing that frightened me." Kernodle said her daughter pushed her way out of the blanket. Then someone wrapped the girl, like a newborn, in another blanket and handed her to her mother. "Of course I was crying," Kernodle said. "I'm a mama." The whole thing took about 45 minutes.

In April, Jeane Newmaker made the same trip to Evergreen.

She paid Connell Watkins & Associates $7,000 for two weeks of "intense therapy" and settled in with a Silverthorne foster family. Watkins and her colleagues went to work.

According to court documents, Candace had at least four days of therapy, all videotaped. Those tapes are now evidence and have been sealed by a judge.

On the fifth day, April 18, in a treatment room in Watkins' office, Candace was wrapped in a blanket or flannel sheet. McDaniel and St. Clair sat beside the pillows surrounding Candace and pressed on them to simulate birth.

And then, like the Kernodles' daughter, Candace was supposed to push her way out of her flannel "womb" and be handed into the arms of her waiting mother.

But the therapists told police Candace struggled at first, complained she couldn't breathe, that she was going to throw up and needed to "poop." And, according to police records, she kept asking "Where do I come out?" Candace didn't come out. When Watkins and Ponder opened the blanket, they discovered that the girl had indeed thrown up. And she was unconscious. She died the next day at Children's Hospital.

Watkins, who had been practicing without a state therapist's li cense, was ordered by the state to close her business.

Neighbors say they haven't seen Newmaker since Candace died, and nobody seems to be living in the home. Someone has taken Newmaker's two dogs, and someone comes by periodically to mow the lawn.

"I'm sure (Jeane) is extremely upset at what happened, more than anyone else," a neighbor said. "She lost a child. I'm sure that what she was trying to do was in the best interest of the girl - for Candace."

Staff writer Kieran Nicholson contributed to this report.

Copyright 2000 The Denver Post. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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