"Bill's Law" and the Death of Candice Newmaker

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"Bill's Law" and the Death of Candice Newmaker

by Ari Armstrong, April 18, 2001

Bill Owens got what he wanted out of the deal: a front page photo of him hugging a distraught grandmother.

"Candice's Law" is not about public safety, it is about a press op. Owens, Senator Mark Hillman, and Representative Debbie Stafford appear on the front page of the April 18 edition of the Rocky. The legislators sponsored the bill that Owens signed April 17.

NEWS FLASH: the people who killed Candice Newmaker during so-called "rebirthing" therapy are ALREADY on trial, charged with child abuse resulting in death. But of course everybody already knows that. On page 7A the News ran two headlines, one about "Candice's Law" and another about the ongoing criminal trial.

I think Candice's killers are getting off easy. I think they should have been charged with outright murder. I read the transcripts, I heard Candice cry out for her life. I heard her killers retort mockingly, "Go ahead and die." We heard you, Candice, and we're mad as hell about your death. If I were a juror, I would vote for a charge of murder or manslaughter.

"Bill's Law" is worthless as legislation. It merely repeats what's already law, saying basically that "rebirthing" is illegal if it puts a child in danger. Bill Owens is simply playing upon the emotions of Candice's family -- and upon the emotions of Colorado citizens -- in his bid for reelection. "Bill's Law" does nothing but cheapen Candice's death, reducing her to a political strategy.

As Carla Howell recently said, "Our state legislators use too many pens, and not enough erasers." When Barry Goldwater ran for president, he said he came not to pass new meaningless laws, but to repeal old meaningless laws. A good legal system consists of a few well-defined, essential laws that outline legal principles. Apparently the Republicans have lost their conscience.

Where is "Young's Law?" Also in the April 18 News, buried on page 16A, is a story about a child with the last name of Young (the first name is not given) whose parents are accused of "torturing their 10-year-old son with a butcher knife and beating him with a stick." Where are you now, Owens, Hillman, and Stafford, to pass "Young's Law" to make it illegal to torture children with butcher knives and sticks? Apparently that story has not gotten enough media coverage to make good politics. But of course child abuse is already against the law, and that law applies in the cases of both Young and Candice.

The Rocky Mountain News was only too happy to play the clown in Bill Owens' media circus. In addition to the paper running the front page photo op, Lynn Bartels writes, "The Davises earlier presented similar plaques [of appreciation] to Rocky Mountain News reporters Carla Crowder and Peggy Lowe, whose stories on Candice's life and death led to the legislation." The News deserves credit for drawing attention to the atrocity of Candice's death, but it does not deserve praise for contributing to the politicization of her death.

An outright ban of "rebirthing" therapy would be uncalled for. It is obvious that the problem was not the rebirthing technique per se, but the careless and malicious misapplication of that technique in Candice's case.

To be sure, the notion of "rebirthing" strikes me as a silly one. However, lots of things which are silly should nevertheless remain legal. Like Bill Owens' publicity stunts. The history of psychology is filled with examples of nonsensical "therapies," starting with many of Freud's techniques. However, it is not the function of the state to decide which therapies are appropriate and which aren't.

Indeed, the state has a horrible record of picking appropriate therapies. Today, the state drugs a significant minority of our children with drugs like Ritalin simply because they get bored in school. It is the government's role to protect the innocent, not play psychotherapist.

Those who think "rebirthing" therapy should be illegal might note the similarity of the technique to an old religious practice -- baptism. In the church I grew up in, the practice of baptism by immersion is taken very seriously. Is it possible that the practice could be implemented in a dangerous way? Of course. But that doesn't mean it should be banned altogether.

What lessons can we draw from Candice's death? Parents should not blindly trust just anyone claiming to be an "expert." Retain always a critical independence. We can't expect that the mere existence of laws will protect us -- laws exist to hold the guilty accountable and deter harmful acts, but they cannot replace responsible action and safety consciousness. Finally, watch out for politicians who seek to use tragedy for personal gain.

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