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The death of a new beginning

Former friends and neighbors in Warren, Pa., wonder what led a mother to the 'rebirthing' therapy that snuffed out her daughter's life.

Sunday, January 28, 2001

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

WARREN, Pa. -- Even as a girl, she was so responsible.

Jeanne Newmaker

As a daughter of a socially prominent family, Jeane Newmaker could have fit right in with her high school's hip clique, the racy crowd with expensive toys and extravagant pastimes. Instead, she made good grades, helped to stage plays and quietly helped to form school policy as a member of student council.

After graduating from high school with honors, Newmaker studied nursing, spurred by a desire to nurture that, 30 years later, is one of the first things classmates mention while sifting through their memories of her. Years later, she returned to her hometown to care for her dying mother; and after that, adopt a foster child who had been abused.

"She was very intelligent and nice, the kind of person who'd smile and say hi to you on the street," said Ohio state Sen. W. Scott Oeslager. In 1971, he was co-president of Newmaker's class at Warren High School.

"It's been a long time since I've seen Jeane, but she always struck me as very bright and very sensible. You'd always expect her to do the right thing."

So how can it be, Oeslager and other classmates wonder, that Newmaker now is facing trial in the death last year of her adopted daughter? And how, they ask, could the conscientious woman they remember have been involved in the bizarre circumstances surrounding 10-year-old Candace Newmaker's death?

Jeane and Candace made national news in April after Candace was smothered during an unconventional "rebirthing" exercise conducted by unlicensed Colorado therapist Connell Watkins and three of Watkins' aides. The April 18 exercise involved wrapping Candace tightly inside a blanket in a simulation of a baby curled inside a birth canal.

While Watkins and her aides surrounded and pushed on Candace with pillows to mimic labor contractions, the adopted girl was supposed to struggle free from her blue-flannel bonds and be "reborn," free of traumas that had marred her troubled childhood.

Instead she died, sweaty and streaked with her own vomit and begging for her life. A videotape of that session, which is now under court-ordered seal in Colorado, captured her repeated, insistent pleas to be freed because she could not breathe.

Candace's death the next day prompted authorities in Evergreen, Colo., to file various criminal charges against Watkins, her three aides and Newmaker.

Watkins, who continued to operate Connell Watkins & Associates in Evergreen after she'd allowed her state license to lapse, has been charged with reckless child abuse resulting in death, unlicensed practice of psychotherapy, criminal impersonation and falsifying documents. She could not be reached for comment.

Three of Watkins' employees -- Julie Ponder, 40; Brita St. Clair, 41; and Jack McDaniel Jr., 47 -- also have been charged with reckless child abuse resulting in death. A trial for Watkins and Ponder is set to begin in March. The other trial dates have not been set.

Newmaker, a pediatric nurse who now lives in Durham, N.C., also was charged with a lesser count of criminal negligence child abuse resulting in death. She did not respond to requests for comment.

Case spurs debate

Candace Newmaker's death also has triggered a fierce debate among adoption advocates, therapists and physicians who care for adopted and foster children who have been traumatized by past abuse and institutionalization.

Children who spent their early years in foster homes or orphanages where they received little or no attention frequently have been diagnosed later with psychological disorders that caused them to be violent, defiant or unable to form bonds -- or attach -- with new, adoptive families.

Candace Newmaker, who was adopted by Jeane Newmaker in 1996 after being seized from her biological family and placed in foster care, was such a child, according to court records.

So her death during a session with a therapist who'd been hired to help her has fueled the confusion and fear of parents who've struggled for years to locate appropriate treatment for children like her.

Most psychologists and researchers do not advocate the rebirthing technique, believing it places so much stress on the brain of an already disturbed child that it constitutes child abuse, said Thais Tepper of Washington, Pa., founder of the Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child, a national support and advocacy group. Tepper calls the practice "tamale therapy."

But a smaller group of mostly social workers and alternative therapists supports Watkins' approach and believe she, her aides and Jeane Newmaker have been targeted by overzealous prosecutors.

"About all the two sides can agree on is the view that [Candace's death] was a terrible event," Tepper said.

Debra Combs, president of the Association for Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children, refused to comment on the exercise that resulted in Candace Newmaker's death.

Combs, whose national group provides education and support for parents and professionals who treat attachment disorders, said leaders of the group had agreed not to discuss the specifics of that case.

"I don't think you can say rebirthing is always good or bad unless you were in that room at the time," said Combs, who does not employ the practice on children she treats. "Unless you were there, you can't know what really happened."

But Combs said she'd known of Watkins prior to Candace Newmaker's death because Watkins was a founding member of Combs' ATTACH organization. She said she considered Watkins to be a well-regarded therapist who'd opened her own practice after working at the nationally known Attachment Center in Evergreen, one of the nation's first facilities to treat attachment disorders.

"I don't know her well, but I heard nothing but good things about her work," Combs said. "She took really tough cases, and she succeeded with them."

Other experts were not so glowing.

"This is a case of a child who was poorly assessed, poorly treated and then killed by unlicensed people," said Dr. Ronald Federici of Alexandria, Va., a developmental neuropsychologist who is noted for his work with disturbed, formerly institutionalized children.

"This practice was absolute quackery with no basis in professional theory. Connell certainly had a following, but not in legitimate science," he said.

Federici and other experts said they know of no scientific study that shows rebirthing to be an effective treatment for attachment disorders in children. Nevertheless, they said, it is used by a handful of people who offer treatments not found in more traditional medicine.

Some of those people have turned to the Internet to publicize themselves and to claim miraculous successes, Federici said. There, they are discovered by desperate adoptive parents whose troubled children haven't responded to mainstream therapies, he said.

'Video is going to hang us'

That, apparently, was the case with Jeane Newmaker, who had never been able to hold or even make eye contact with her adopted daughter. In interviews with investigators after her daughter's death, Jeane Newmaker said Candace had not responded to medication and traditional therapy for attention deficit disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after she was adopted.

Newmaker continued to research her daughter's ailments and behavior and eventually discovered information about attachment disorder and the ATTACH group on the Internet, according to an affidavit filed by Jefferson County Sheriff's investigator Diane Obbema.

While attending an ATTACH conference in 1999, Newmaker spoke with a social worker who suggested that she contact Watkins.

"You might wonder where Jeane's head was at, but I don't fault her," said Federici, who was a speaker at that 1999 conference in Alexandria. "She was looking for answers. I look more to the people who diagnosed her daughter in minutes and sent her out to Colorado."

Watkins provided Jeane Newmaker with literature in which she falsely used the license of another Colorado social worker, investigators said. Newmaker then paid Watkins $7,000 for a two-week intensive therapy session for her daughter in April.

Newmaker told investigators she had been encouraged by a therapy session there that ended with Candace consenting to be held for the first time. The next day, Candace was wrapped in a fetal position inside the blanket.

Both ends were gathered above her head and Watkins and her aides placed pillows on top of her. For the next 70 minutes, they pushed on the pillows to mimic birth contractions and urged Candace to push her way out of the cloth channel.

Investigators said the videotape shows that Candace told them seven times she could not breathe, insisted six times that she was going to die and complained that she needed to vomit and use the toilet. According to the affidavit, Watkins and Ponder told her she was supposed to feel that way.

"You want to die? OK, then die," they responded.

Investigators said they made no effort to check Candace's body temperature, pulse or airway, even after they noted she had stopped talking. Finally, they unwrapped her and discovered she'd vomited, turned blue and had no pulse.

Jeane Newmaker, who'd been in the room for part of the exercise and watched the rest on a closed-circuit TV, performed CPR until paramedics arrived. They took Candace to Children's Hospital in Denver, where she died of brain injuries caused by asphyxiation.

When police arrived, they said Watkins told them she had not performed rebirthing in a long time and said "the video is going to hang us." Charges were filed against Watkins, her aides and Newmaker May 24.

Town keeps open mind

When word of Jeane Newmaker's troubles reached her hometown, former acquaintances said they found it difficult to reconcile news accounts of her involvement in a child's bizarre death with memories of the serious, responsible woman they'd known.

Few have talked with her since her arrest, and those who have are supportive, saying they believe her involvement in the rebirthing exercise was a well-meaning, if misguided, attempt to help her daughter.

"I can't believe this lovely girl could now be involved in hurting someone. She was always thoughtful, never in trouble," said W. Leroy Schneck, the longtime general manager of three Warren radio stations, whose twin daughters were Newmaker's classmates.

Jeane Newmaker was the youngest of three daughters who lived with their parents, John and Dorothy Newmaker, in a sprawling Victorian house on Market Street in the center of Warren, a quaint county seat on the edge of the Allegheny National Forest near the New York border.

Her family's history in Warren dates back to 1882, when her great-grandfather, carpenter J.W. Newmaker, purchased the lumber plant that would make the family wealthy. From the lumber plant evolved saw mills, planing mills and eventually the now-defunct Phenix Furniture Co., which specialized in making bedroom furniture.

"At one time, the Newmakers were the leaders in this community," Schneck said. "They were definitely a prominent family."

In high school, Jeane Newmaker joined the French, Latin, ski and pep clubs and worked on play and prom committees. Her grades got her into the National Honor Society and she graduated with honors in 1971.

"She was a lively, fun person, a likable person," said classmate Pat Evans of Warren. "Her family might have had more money than most, but her attitude was 'So what?' It's typical of her that she adopted, and I give her credit for taking a child into her life."

Newmaker studied nursing at the University of Rochester. She went to work at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, where she lived in an elegant colonial home.

Acquaintances remember that she returned to Warren after her parents divorced in the mid-1980s and cared for her mother until she died of cancer. "That's the kind of person she was," said classmate John Loranger of Warren.

Her sisters by then had moved away and her father died a short time later. The family home had been sold and demolished to make way for the Warren Public Library.

After Jeane left town again, few classmates heard anything of her until her arrest made the local paper and national news. But Evans, a former Warren County commissioner and president of the county's mental health agency's board, said she'd heard little since then in the way of gossip about Newmaker.

Perhaps, Evans said, that's because the town is more compassionate than most because it was home for years to a state hospital for the mentally ill. Or maybe, she said, it's because people remember Jeane Newmaker was once a friend to them and they're keeping an open mind.

"You don't take a child out of your home, spend a small fortune and go halfway across the country if you expect an outcome like this," Evans said. "No one here is enjoying this, and I think they're hoping she'll come out of it. No one here wants to see that much pain."

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