Congresswoman Wants 'Rebirthing' Therapy Outlawed

Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:04pm EDT
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( - U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) is calling on Congress to take a tough stand against the so-called psychological therapy of "rebirthing," a procedure blamed for the death of an adopted North Carolina girl two years ago.

The procedure gained notoriety when 10-year-old Candace Newmaker died after being treated in a Denver suburb in April 2000 for something called reactive attachment disorder. Rebirthing is a controversial technique used in attachment therapy, which often attempts to emotionally connect adopted children with their adoptive mothers.

Newmaker died from asphyxiation after spending 90 minutes wrapped in a blanket and covered by pillows while two therapists and two assistants pushed her and sat on her to simulate a mother's contractions during childbirth. Her adoptive mother, Jeane Newmaker, stood nearby and watched the procedure on video.

Concerned that the technique could claim another life, Myrick introduced a resolution in the House.

"The therapeutic technique known as rebirthing is dangerous and harmful, and the Congress encourages each state to enact a law that prohibits such technique," the resolution states.

The American Psychological Association and the National Council For Adoption have offered support for Myrick's resolution.

Colorado banned rebirthing last year when Gov. Bill Owens (R) signed "Candace's Law." A stricter measure failed in Utah, but it is being reconsidered along with legislation in California, Florida, New Jersey and North Carolina.

Even though Myrick's resolution targets one form of attachment therapy, it does not go far enough in limiting coercive restraint, said Larry Sarner, who has lobbied for stricter laws and serves as a monitor for the National Council Against Health Fraud. He said the resolution would have little impact because the procedure has already become taboo and is now only practiced "underground."

Sarner defines coercive restraint or "holding therapy" as a technique in which a parent, most often a mother, holds a child while he or she struggles to break free. In the case of Candace Newmaker, she had already completed this stage of therapy days before her death.

"Part of the theory is that these kids can't attach properly," Sarner said. "So what you do is force them to attach, force them to get close to people and most importantly, force them to give up control of the situation.

"Supposedly the kids will react by getting angry and fight back and struggle to get released," he added. "You keep holding them until they get exhausted and eventually realize that's the way they're going to get better. All that's baloney. In fact, what they're doing is just torturing the kids."

An advocate of attachment therapy said the practice of rebirthing should not be used to treat children with reactive attachment disorder. Linda Eisele, executive director of the Association for Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children, said she was unfamiliar with such techniques until Candace's death.

"I don't know anybody who does that anymore," Eisele said. "The field has progressed way beyond that."

But Eisele disputed Sarner's characterization of "holding therapy" as coercive restraint.

"When people do what we call 'holding therapy,' it's with the client's permission, it's with the parent's permission," Eisele said. "It's done in a cradling or cuddling way, it is not ever a restraint."

Calls to the Institute For Attachment & Child Development, which treats reactive attachment disorder, were not returned.

Regardless of how the attachment therapy is carried out, the sponsor of Colorado's law said rebirthing needed to be banned.

"I felt we had to put a stop to extreme therapies that were not traditional," Republican state Rep. Debbie Stafford said. "What concerned me when I saw the rebirthing as it was experienced by Candace was a lack of accountability and supervision."

Stafford hopes to present a more comprehensive bill in the coming session to address other problems related to the treatment of children with reactive attachment disorder and similar problems.

Meanwhile, the two therapists who carried out the rebirthing that resulted in Candace Newmaker's death were sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2001. Their assistants were sentenced to 10 years probation and Candace's adoptive mother was convicted of child abuse and was sentenced to four years of probation.

The resolution, also know as the "Candace Newmaker Resolution of 2002," will be considered when Congress returns from recess in September.

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