“Children of Rage”: The Strange Case of RAD Victim Beth Thomas and Her Re-Birthing Benefactor Connell Watkins

compiled by Patrick H. Moore

Beth Thomas was the angry little girl featured on the remarkable, albeit disturbing, HBO documentary, Child of Rage, which was released around 1990. She suffered from severe Reactive Attachment Disorder.

In an excellent blog post by marilyn4ever, posted on October 30, 2010, Marilyn details Beth Thomas’s story with empathy and apparent clarity. I strongly suggest you read Beth’s post and a second post critiquing a controversial treatment program for RAD called Attachment Therapy, as well as Marilyn’s follow-up post on Attachment Therapy called Beth Thomas, Candace Newmaker and Attachment Therapy Controversy.

(Disclaimer: This information is entirely new to me and I have no informed opinion as to Beth Thomas’s mental health (or lack thereof today) or the pros and cons of Attachment Therapy. I do think the Beth Thomas story and this general topic is quite fascinating and strongly recommend that anyone interested click on the provided links to learn more.)

Part One:

Here is a quick sketch of Ms. Thomas’s early childhood and alleged recovery:

Beth’s mother died when she was one year old. She and her infant brother Jonathan were left in the care of their sadistic father, who sexually abused her to an appalling degree. Beth and Jonathan were rescued by Child Services when she was 19 months old. By this point, she was horribly scarred. Beth and Jonathan were adopted by Tim and Julie, sincere church people, who had no biological children. Shockingly, Tim and Julie were told nothing about the children’s abusive background.

bethIt wasn’t long until Tim and Julie discovered the horrible truth about Beth and Jonathan’s upbringing. Beth had recurring nightmares about a  “man who was falling on her and hurting her with a part of himself.” Beth masturbated several times a day until she bled and had to be hospitalized. She also poked pins into her brother. After some time had passed,  she smashed her brother’s head into the cement floor which required stitches. As Beth admits in Child of Rage in her soft, rather affect-less voice, her desire is to kill her brother. She also wants to kill her adoptive parents. Although Beth is perfectly intelligent and is well aware that her actions are wrong, she experiences no remorse. Based on the mounting danger that Beth is going to kill Jonathan, in early 1989, her parents took her to a therapist named Connell Watkins, who diagnosed Beth with a severe case of Reactive Attachment Disorder and began a course of intensive behaviour modification.

beth6Based on the treatment plan, at first, all of her freedom was radically restricted. She was locked in her bedroom at night so she couldn’t escape or hurt anyone. Beth began to improve and the restrictions were slowly removed. Within one year, she was so much better that she was permitted to share a bedroom with the therapist’s own daughter. Measured by any yardstick, it was remarkable. She learned empathy and remorse and regretted her own cruelties and would weep openly when describing some of the bad things she had done, especially to her brother Jonathan.

beth13Marilyn reports (and I believe many would agree) that Beth Thomas grew into a mentally healthy woman. She studied nursing, earned a degree, and has authored a book entitled “More Than a Thread of Hope.” She and her second adoptive mother, Nancy Thomas, established a clinic for children with severe behaviour disturbances. Nancy Thomas has written a book entitled Dandelion on my Pillow, Butcher Knife Beneath (Coping with Personal Problems). Their website is www.attachment.org.

Part Two:

Connell Watkins and the Death of Candace Newmaker

beth11Although Connell Watkins arguably has done an amazing job of helping Beth Thomas recover from her intense abuse through a regimen consisting largely of strict rules and the gradual earning of privileges, by the time Candace Newmaker’s adoptive parents brought their troubled child to Ms. Watkins for therapy, Watkins had begun using far more controversial techniques including something called “rebirthing”.

Connell Watkins

Connell Watkins

The script for that fateful day called for Candace to be “wrapped in a flannel sheet to simulate a womb”. She was then told to extricate herself from the womb, the expectation being that the process “would help her “attach” to her adoptive mother.” What was peculiar about this was the fact that as Candace sought to “extricate herself”, four adults including Connell Watkins “used their hands, feet, and large pillows to resist her attempts to free herself”. It was all videotaped and the evidence shown at trial shows Candace screaming for help and air. Candace repeatedly stated “she was dying, to which Waktins co-therapist Julie Ponder responded, “You want to die? OK, then die. Go ahead, die right now”. At some point, Candace vomited and fouled herself inside the sheet. Her “therapists” still would not let her go.

Some 40 minutes into the session, Candace’s adoptive mother, Jeane Newmaker, asked her: “Baby, do you want to be born?” Candace faintly said “no”. This was the last word she ever uttered.

Julie Ponder responded in frustration, “Quitter, quitter, quitter, quitter! Quit, quit, quit, quit. She’s a quitter!”

Julie Ponder

Julie Ponder

Adoptive mother,Jeane Newmaker, felt rejected by Candace’s inability to be reborn and was asked “to leave the room, in order that Candace would not “pick up on (Jeane’s) sorrow”. Ultimately, only Watkins and Ponder were left in the room with Candace. When they finally unwrapped her from the sheet, “she was motionless, blue on the fingertips and lips, and not breathing.” Paramedics were called and were able to restore the girl’s pulse. She was helicoptered to a Denver hospital and declared brain-dead the next day, as a result of asphixia.

At trial, Watkins and Ponder were convicted of reckless child abuse resulting in death. They were each sentenced to 16 years in prison. Jeanne Newmaker pleaded guilty to neglect and abuse charges and got a four-year suspended sentence. Her charges were later expunged from her record. Watkins was paroled in June 2008 after serving 7 years, and placed under “intense supervision” with restrictions on contact with children or counseling work.

*     *     *     *     *

Although I stated at the beginning of this post, that I would not state an opinion on the pros and cons of attachment therapy, after reading about Candace Newmaker’s tragic demise, it’s hard not to. Please keep in mind that Nancy Thomas is Beth Thomas’s second adoptive mother, having replaced the church people, Tim and Julie, sometime after Beth’s recovery.

Marilyn writes in her blogpost, Beth Thomas, Candace Newmaker and Attachment Therapy Controversy:

beth14It is Nancy Thomas’s association with Watkins and Ponder that I find worrisome in her work with Beth (Thomas). Nancy worked with Watkins and Ponder during the Newmaker murder. (It’s not clear what Nancy Thomas did during the death of Candace Newmaker. I see no evidence she was in the room at that time and she certainly was not charged with anything.)

Marilyn points out that Thomas owns two clinics “Families by Design” and “Stop America’s Violent Youth“. As an advocate and practitioner of Attachment Therapy (AT), she allegedly engages in techniques that include “screaming in the child’s face, shaking the child’s head violently, forcing the child to perform-type military exercise, isolation, food deprivation, taunting, rebirthing, and humiliation.”

This is some scary stuff, particularly considering what happened to Candace Newmaker. The fact that Beth Thomas works with Nancy Thomas is also worrisome and perhaps suggests that Beth has never truly moved beyond her own intense childhood trauma and re-visits it — in  a sense — each time she and Nancy Thomas engage in questionable therapeutic techniques with a client. But keep in mind, I am only speculating and I invite you to do the same.

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