Holding On

Families search for a miracle therapy that won't hurt their troubled children

Tibbets performed CPR and called 911, but it was too late. He served a five-year prison sentence for child-abuse homicide, a third-degree felony. Released this year, he lives in Wyoming with his parents, volunteers as a truck-stop preacher and actively speaks out against holding therapy.

Across the Colorado state line, another child died during a holding-therapy session. In April 2000, attachment therapists Connell Watkins and Julie Ponder performed rebirthing therapy on ten-year-old Candace Newmaker. Rebirthing basically took regressive therapy one step further; the idea was that Candace would be reborn and have a fresh start with her adoptive mother. The New York Times reported that to simulate the womb, Candace was wrapped in a flannel sheet and therapists pressed against her with couch cushions to replicate contractions.

Candace said seven times that she couldn't breathe and six times that she was going to die. Therapists called her a quitter and told her to fight for air.

Experts differ on what constitutes holding therapy.
David Terrill
Experts differ on what constitutes holding therapy.
Some of the kids diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder can't be left alone with family pets.
David Terrill
Some of the kids diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder can't be left alone with family pets.

After 40 minutes Candace stopped responding. Thirty minutes later the sheet was removed and therapists discovered that she was dead.

The two therapists were each sentenced to 16 years in prison, and the state of Colorado passed "Candace's Law," which outlawed rebirthing therapy. Last year, a bill was passed in the Utah House of Representatives prohibiting licensed therapists from doing rebirthing and holding therapy, but it failed in the Senate. In June, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that a four-year-old girl's death might have been caused by holding therapy. Representative Mike Thompson (R-Orem) says he plans to refile the bill in the next legislative session.

Legislative hearings are being held in California, and in mid-July, North Carolina Representative Sue Myrick (R-Charlotte) proposed a resolution to ban rebirthing therapy and encouraged all states to do the same.

"The thing that upsets me the most is that it is child abuse," Thompson says. "You are taught by a professional that this type of child abuse is good."

This summer, the American Psychiatric Association released a position statement saying there is no scientific evidence that holding therapy or rebirthing techniques are effective but that clinical data shows they can be deadly. "Recent events have made it quite clear that some of these unproven techniques can be extremely dangerous and even fatal," says psychiatrist David Fassler, who chaired the committee that wrote the statement. "Deaths have occurred in the course of the implementation of these so-called treatments."

Attachment therapy is the current psychological fad, Fassler says, and attachment therapists are overdiagnosing kids who don't actually have the disorder. He says a very small number of children have RAD. "If you focus on a particular kind of treatment, you tend to look at a lot of problems through that lens," says Fassler, clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Fassler is writing guidelines for parents and therapists treating RAD.

Just because a kid has attachment issues doesn't mean he has RAD, Fassler maintains. Attachment issues can be a symptom of a learning disorder, anxiety disorder or affective disorder, he says. Symptoms that look like RAD can really be a developmental ailment, such as autism.

"This can be a very complex and frustrating disorder," Fassler says. "It's also a very difficult and challenging disorder to treat, and I think there are no easy answers or magic solutions."

No single form of therapy will treat RAD, Fassler says. He thinks a variety of approaches -- including individual, family and behavioral therapy and psychotropic medication -- need to be tried to treat different aspects of the disease.

He doesn't endorse even the kinder, gentler forms of holding therapy, where a child is hugged or held on a therapist's lap. "There's no evidence that it is helpful. There's no consistent scientific evidence," Fassler insists. "Parents need that information. It has to be considered far out of the mainstream and not something we can really recommend."

Attachment therapy is nothing more than an overpriced exorcism, says Jean Mercer, professor of psychology at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, New Jersey. "That's not modern psychotherapy. That's not any kind of psychotherapy. What they do is a magic ceremony. It's like the laying on of hands."

She says attachment therapists use scare tactics in declaring that children will become mass murderers if they aren't treated. "Very, very few people do grow up to be that way."

Mercer says she's not convinced that RAD is a real disease. The behaviors on the RAD diagnostic checklist could apply to many not-so-well-behaved children. Mercer says that desperate parents start seeing everything a child does as a symptom of the disease. Labeling the bad behavior as an illness takes the blame off the parents, she says, so parents can say that they have a sick kid and not deal with their own emotional issues.

Karen Whitfield from Lakewood, Colorado, was a defiant child who didn't obey orders or follow rules, so her parents beat her with belts. Diagnosed with RAD when she was nine, Whitfield spent three years in therapy in Evergreen where she was held down, shouted at and poked in the ribs. "It was absolute hell," she says. "To me, it was no different than the abuse that I suffered at home -- it was just under the name of therapy."

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