For 70 minutes on the morning of April 5, jurors in Jefferson County, Colo., sat in stunned disbelief, some shaking their heads, others weeping, as they watched a videotape of the dying moments of 10-year-old Candace Newmaker. Throughout the video the child is tightly swaddled from head to toe in a blue flannel sheet that is meant to symbolize the womb. Her adoptive mother, Jeane Newmaker, 47, had paid $7,000 for two weeks of intensive therapy, including a “rebirthing”—a reenactment of the birthing process—in hopes it might help Candace break with her troubled past.
“I can’t breathe,” Candace cries 10 minutes into the ceremony.
“You have to push hard and want to be born,” answers one of the four adults who, to simulate contractions, press upon the girl’s 70-lb. frame with gold pillows and their combined weight of 673 lbs.
“I’m sick,” Candace cries eight minutes later. “Get off.” Then, “I just threw up. I gotta poop.”
“Lay in there with the poop and vomit,” comes the answer.
At 49 minutes the child lapses into silence. When the sheet is removed 21 minutes later, Candace is no longer breathing. The following day, April 19 of last year, the cause of death is determined: mechanical asphyxiation—or, as prosecutors explain, choking in her own vomit.
That Candace died during the rebirthing is not in dispute. As defendant Connell Watkins, 54, the therapist in charge, told investigators the day of the tragedy, “The videotape is going to hang us. It is going to look awful to people who don’t understand what we are doing.” But in fact, it also looks bad to people who do understand. “It’s a bizarre treatment, akin to witchcraft,” says Dr. Ronald Federici, a developmental neuropsychologist who works with severely disabled children in Alexandria, Va. “It has no basis in reality or psychiatric care.”
When the defense presents its case this week, Watkins and her codefendant, therapist Julie Ponder, 40, who have each pleaded not guilty to a charge of child abuse resulting in death, appear poised to argue that Candace died of heart failure induced by the medications she was taking. (The two others who participated, Watkins’s office manager Brita St. Clair, 41, and Jack McDaniel Jr., 48, who have since married, will be tried on the same charge in September.) Each faces from 16 to 48 years in prison. Candace’s mother, who goes on trial in November for criminally negligent child abuse resulting in death, faces four to 16 years.
Newmaker, a former nurse practitioner, began looking into alternative therapies because she felt traditional remedies were not working for her only child, whom she took into her Durham, N.C., home at age 6. “It was,” the single mother tearfully told the court, “the last chance to save my family.”
While testifying against Watkins and Ponder, Newmaker said that the report from the Department of Social Services in Hickory, N.C., where Candace spent her early years, described the girl as stubborn and willful. It also indicated a multigenerational family history of poverty, abuse and abandonment. Candace’s biological grandmother Mary Davis, 48, grew up in 17 foster and group homes. Her biological mother, Angela Elmore, 30, passed through 12 such homes before reuniting with Davis as a teen. Candace and her two younger siblings were removed from the Elmore home because of neglect. According to Candace, she had been thrown from a second-floor window. “When I went to pre-parenting classes, I knew she would be dealing with issues of loss,” testified Newmaker, who tried for three years to adopt a child. “But I was not prepared for the level of dysfunction I saw.”
In tears, she described how Candace pulled down ceiling-to-floor bookcases, shredded books and had hour-long “meltdowns” during which she kicked, scratched and bit. She also testified that Candace deliberately killed her pet fish. Another time, Newmaker said, her daughter bullied two young girls to remove their clothes, then threatened them. She also burned holes in a sheet and mattress. “I was so frightened for her,” Newmaker said. Her concern heightened last year, she testified, when she learned that Candace’s biological sister Chelsea, now 10, had been removed from an adoptive home after attempting to strangle their younger brother Michael, 8.
Over the years, Newmaker consulted a succession of doctors, resulting in a growing list of diagnoses: attention deficit disorder, posttraumatic stress syndrome, oppositional defiance disorder. When other specialists suggested reactive attachment disorder, Jeane, who routinely complied with physicians’ advice, signed up for a workshop. There she met Dr. Bill Goble, a clinical psychologist who labeled Candace’s problems severe and suggested she approach someone like Watkins in Evergreen, Colo., for rebirthing, which in theory helps a child overcome early trauma and forge a bond with a new parent. At the time, Candace was taking the antipsychotic drug Risperdal, the amphetamine Dexedrine for her ADD and the antidepressant Effexor. By the time they arrived in Evergreen, Jeane described herself as just “trying to hold it together.”
On the video Jeane is seen heeding instructions to sit by Candace’s head and encourage her to be born as the rebirthing ceremony gets under way. “I’m so excited about my new baby,” she says, role-playing. “She is going to be very close to me and safe.” Seven times the girl claims she is sick. Eight times she says she cannot breathe. Sixteen times she pleads for help. Only once does any of the five adults present check on the child. Instead, at 23 minutes, a pillow is pressed in the vicinity of Candace’s covered head. After that she grows quiet.
An hour into the session, Watkins says that Candace “is not ready to be born yet,” and Newmaker is sent from the room to watch the proceedings on a monitor. Ten minutes later Watkins pulls back the sheet, then Ponder feels for a pulse and cries out the girl’s name. Newmaker runs back into the room and screams, “She’s dead!” She falls upon her daughter, begins CPR and yells, “Call 911,” which Watkins does.
The following month the Colorado Mental Health Grievance Board issued a cease-and-desist order barring Watkins and Ponder from practicing psychotherapy. Neither, it turns out, had complied with Colorado’s registration guidelines for unlicensed therapists. Dr. Goble, who gave Watkins’s name to New-maker, continues to maintain that she “is one of the most knowledgeable people in the field.”
Lawmakers are now trying to ensure there will be no more fatal passages through symbolic birth canals. Colorado state legislator Debbie Stafford has introduced a bill that aims to end the “use or recommendation of the rebirthing therapeutic technique.” She hopes to host a bill-signing when Candace’s grandmother Mary Davis attends the trial this week. The bill, in dark tribute, is dubbed Candace’s Law.
Vickie Bane in Jefferson County and Michaele Ballard in Durham