The rest of America may have been wondering on April 20, 1999, why two teenagers would walk into a Colorado high school and gleefully start shooting classmates, but Beth Thomas wasn't.
She didn't spend five seconds thinking about how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold could do such a thing
"I was a lot like them," Thomas, 19, said in a telephone interview from Colorado. "I had thoughts like that. I never shot people, but I threatened to kill them. Columbine High School wasn't a situation of normal or depressed people going crazy or a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing. This is what kids do who are possessed by one single feeling rage."
Thomas said that's all she ever felt before receiving several sessions of so-called hugging therapy. She's voicing support for the controversial treatment after Utah Rep. Mike Thompson, R-Orem, announced last month he was drafting legislation that could ban it here.
After reading of Thompson's plan in the Deseret News, Nancy Thomas, Beth's mother, contacted the paper to "make sure people out there really know what this therapy is before they make a big mistake."
Beth Thomas, who is adopted, said she remembers at age 6 telling her first adoptive parents that she would kill them with a butcher knife while they were asleep so they wouldn't hear her coming. Her story was featured in a 1989 documentary, "Child of Rage," shown on HBO. She said she sexually abused and tried to kill her younger brother several times because she believed their mother had died while giving birth to him.
Although Thomas and others support holding therapy, a form of it called rebirthing is blamed for the April 2000 asphyxiation of a 10-year-old girl in Colorado.
Donald Lee Tibbets of Midvale claimed he inadvertently caused his 3-year-old adoptive daughter's fatal suffocation in 1995 during a similar session gone awry. Holding therapists say Tibbets was not properly trained and was simply blaming the therapy in an attempt to get a lighter sentence.
The treatment is designed to encourage emotionally disturbed children who haven't "attached" to their parents or other adults to struggle, fight, scream and release rage that proponents say prohibits natural bonding with adults and the normal development of conscience and empathy.
It is often used with foster and adoptive children, many of whom have been seriously neglected or abused by adults and have severe behavioral problems and attachment disorders.
Although some children in state custody in Utah receive the therapy through their foster parents, Medicaid doesn't cover the procedure.
State mental health authorities say while there is large and often remarkable anecdotal evidence supporting it, because results haven't been clinically proven such treatment is not included on the state's approved or "best practices" therapy list.
They say there is also a disconcerting element of zealotry among many of its supporters that makes it sound like some kind of "silver bullet" solution instead of a therapy option.
Thompson, who has a copy of the 70-minute videotape of the botched rebirthing session that led to the death of Candace Newmaker in Colorado, said four adults are shown leaning on the girl with pillows, applying several hundred pounds of pressure.
"The girl is crying out that she can't breathe and that she's going to die, and the therapists are goading her and yelling at her and even saying, 'Well, die then,' " Thompson said. "It's the most terrible thing you've ever seen."
Last month the two holding therapists involved were sentenced to 16 years each in prison. The Colorado Legislature this spring banned rebirthing.
"But it did not ban holding therapy," Nancy Thomas said. "It is all about nurturing and getting love into a child," she said, noting that she has assisted in more than 2,000 holding sessions in the past 20 years. "And no one I know does rebirthing.
"And no one I know of," she said, "uses taunts or teasing or fists in the stomach or the heavy pressure that Mr. Thompson refers to."
Johanna Everette, who said she had hundreds of frightening holding sessions for five years at the Cascade Center for Family Growth in Orem.
Everette, 18, said sessions would last one to four hours and that therapists would lie on her, push their fists into her abdomen, deep massage emotional "scar" tissue to the point of bruising other parts of her body as well as tease and taunt her to make her angry.
She said she would be wrapped in a sheet from the neck down and laid on the floor. "I would be completely panicky, and I would almost pass out or feel like throwing up. I think it's torture."
Everette, the oldest of eight adopted children, said the overriding result of her treatment was her shutting down emotionally even more. "I would just be angry at them, and I just refused to cooperate or get mad, even though they would tell me I would end up in jail or end up killing someone or that I would die without the therapy."
Everette's mother, Laurie, said she attended every session, and each one was done with love and caring, not even close to the way her daughter describes. While Johanna was held down against her will, she was not baited, provoked or hurt, she said.
"I wouldn't have stood for that as her mother," she said. "It helped her a little when she would let it, but for some reason Johanna shuts down, and we can't quite reach her. But I can't tell you the incredible help this therapy and the center has been for our family and our other children. The standard therapy we were getting just wasn't working at all."
Laura Weston said holding therapy "saved my life." Weston, 40, went through the therapy at 35 "after a lifetime of trying to deal with a rape and horrific child abuse."
She said kids like her don't believe they can be loved and above all they don't want a parent and will try to control every situation however they can. She said she wasn't eating and was taking 150 laxatives a day by the time she was hospitalized at 90 pounds.
"I was trying to get all this anger out and was just trying to cleanse myself because I thought I was worthless," Weston said, noting that she is now engaged to be married.
"Everybody knows how normal stress and anger feel," she said. "They get it at work and driving and at home, and it has real, physical side-effects. They get stomach aches or ulcers or neck and back pain. The only thing I can equate this to for someone who doesn't understand is the relief you feel when you're stressed out and someone comes up behind you and rubs your neck and shoulders. There is that kind of release involved here, but it's so much more powerful."
Weston admits the therapy itself is unpleasant. "And even though people are really being nurtured, someone hearing a session might think the person must be getting killed in the next room."
Several child advocate groups have recently voiced opposition to the therapy, saying they believe being forcibly held actually hinders attachment and trust because it is the exact opposite of the deep natural human resentment and resistance to the use of force.
Jan Hunt of the Natural Child Project said forced holding by a parent will inevitably engender strong feelings of fear, confusion, helplessness, anger and betrayal as the child's natural attempts to break free are disregarded by those he is coming to love and trust. When held by force, the child finally understands that freedom comes only by giving in to outside control a dangerous lesson to give to a young child.
"A broken will is not equal to psychological health," Hunt said.
They do begin to find peace, said Lawrence Van Bloem, co-owner and clinical director of the Cascade center. He believes local mental health agencies and most mental health professionals are inherently biased against holding therapy, despite their own inability to present evidence or research to prove their efficacy of what they do with traumatized children.
The rebirthing therapy involved in the Colorado incident isn't being offered and never has been in Utah, as far as Van Bloem knows.
But he said that banning rebirthing is pointless. "Of course, anyone in the U.S. would be a fool to duplicate a therapy that led to the death of a child . . . and it was nothing like the treatment holding therapists provide."
He said regulating holding therapy in general "would not prevent injury to people any more than regulating surgery, medications and other healthcare procedures" would. Beth Thomas says people who are against holding therapy don't have a child with an attachment disorder or have never seen what really goes on in a session.
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