"Death of little girl raises red flag on quackery"

Speakout by Linda Rosa

Denver Rocky Mountain News

June 2, 2000

[Linda Rosa, a registered nurse, is Colorado coordinator for the National Council for Reliable Health Information]

The horrific suffocation of 10-year-old Candace Newmaker by an Evergreen psychotherapist and her associates should sound alarm bells to everyone, especially parents. The facts of the matter are that "alternative," "complementary," and "integrative" health remedies, unregulated by even common sense, resemble Russian Roulette more than modern medicine.

"Rebirthing" therapy that claimed Candace's life may sound like a legitimate technique for the treatment of "reactive attachment disorder" to desperate parents. A look at its origins reveals otherwise.

Rebirthing traces its roots back to Freud who believed-without evidence-that neuroses were caused by childhood sexual trauma. Since Freudian psychoanalysis rarely produced a cure, the search for one led to an equally baseless belief that most mental problems spring from the trauma surrounding birth. Lack of therapeutic success with that notion, too, led to pre-natal regression therapies; they in turn led to past-life regressions, ala Carl Jung. Alternative psychotherapies abound with these Jungian and neo-Freudian regressions, rebirthing among them. And there is not a shred of scientific evidence to support any of it. Much of it is just plain silly.

As odd as this sounds, it's not that strange compared to what passes for "alternative" therapies in Colorado today. We are home to chiropractors who brazenly attack immunizations as poisonings. The School of Nursing at the University of Colorado trains nurses to treat imaginary "human energy fields." The state licenses acupuncturists whose treatment is predicated on a stone-age variant of what the School of Nursing teaches. Naturopaths sell sugar pills imbued with mere "memories" of alleged healing agents. Legions of chelators are eager to flush undetectable "toxins" out of your personal plumbing. Coloradoans are bombarded daily with with unsubstantiated claims for every herb and root.

One thing alternative therapies have in common is a lack of good evidence that they work and are reasonably safe. Most spring from their inventors' imaginations. Few have ever stood up to the scrutiny of peer review in legitimate medical publications. None has a track record of effectiveness, save for andedotal claims. They are taught-promoted really-through pricy "seminars" instead of professional meetings.

When practitioners convince you to use their nostrums in addition to scientific health care, "alternative" therapies become "complementary." When they convince your doctor to go along too, they become "integrative." Whatever they are called, they are, almost without exception, useless. And, as Candace's case indicates, dangerous.

A tragic death like Candace's was inevitable. Colorado has long cultivated a climate where quackery can flourish. The promoters of alternatives have long attacked science as a means of separating the wheat from the chaff. But without a requirement for scientific evidence, there is no good way to judge the safety and efficacy of proposed therapies. Without reality checks, alternative practices evolve into ever greater monstrosities: If a little girl doesn't bond with her adoptive mother, regress her to a birth experience. If she resists, force it on her. If she says she can't breathe, ignore it as a pretense. As each unjustified effort fails, escalation continues until a tragedy intervenes. Without a scientific mindset, it couldn't happen otherwise.

Whether or not it is shown that Candace's death was the result of criminal acts, it is readily apparent that she was killed by quackery-the application of unproven remedies for personal gain. Holding out false hope to desperate people is a defining characteristic of quackery. This is a classic case.

We can predict how this will be played out. The therapists will be lionized as caring individuals mortified by this "accident." If nevertheless found guilty, they will likely be treated as martyrs by the alternative medicine movement. Questions will be raised as to why state regulators allowed these people to practice as officially "unlicensed psychotherapists" (yes, that is really a category in state law), and the regulators will in turn exculpate themselves by blaming the legislature for the laws. Meanwhile, rebirthing will take on another name, in another place, and continue as before. And we can all await another Candace.

Regulators can't do much to protect us, especially when Colorado law literally encourages quackery. We have to watch out for ourselves: demand convincing scientific evidence for any therapy, especially alternatives, and patronize only ethical, competent, credentialed professionals who can critically evaluate evidence. The "alternative" can be ghastly: imagine your own child being executed by her therapistŠwhile you watch it on TV.