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‘Hugging therapy’ may be banned

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Hoping to prevent deaths like the one in Utah six years ago and one in Colorado this spring, a Utah lawmaker is drafting legislation that could outlaw so-called hugging or holding therapy for emotionally troubled children.

Rep. Mike Thompson, R-Orem, said he is researching Utah statute as well as working with Colorado lawmakers who banned the controversial therapy that severely restricts a child's movement until he stops resisting.

The therapy is offered and taught in several places around Utah, Thompson said. Some people believe it does help children who have behavior problems and won't emotionally attach to their parents and other adults, he said.

"But this kind of therapy obviously puts children in harm's way and can have tragic consequences," he said.

The bill is one of 22 pieces of parental rights legislation that he and other lawmakers are working on in preparation for next January's general session of the Legislature.

A form of the therapy known as "rebirthing" caused the suffocation death of 10-year-old Candace Newmaker in Golden, Colo. The two adult therapists involved were each sentenced to 16 years in prison last month.

Donald Lee Tibbets of Midvale was sent to prison for the death in 1995 of his 3-year-old foster daughter, Krystal. The therapy is designed to provoke a child into a rage and draw out repressed sources of anger. Tibbets was accused of pressing his fist into her abdomen and putting his weight against her chest.

Tibbets said in court that he had used the therapy successfully and believed it was helping the girl control her emotional outbursts.

Sen. Edgar Allen, D-Ogden, a member of the Legislature's Human Services Committee, said as Thompson and others investigate the therapy they should make sure they get a complete picture of how it is being used in Utah.

"I agree that hugging therapy sounds overly aggressive and ought to be regulated if not banned, but we need to make sure we don't just get one side of this," Allen said. "If you look at the use of any medical treatment, there can be toxic side-effects."

Since the Colorado case, several child advocacy groups have taken positions against holding therapy, saying because it is labeled therapy, it can be difficult for professionals to regulate or for parents to recognize its dangers.

Jan Hunt of The Natural Child Project, a child welfare monitoring group based in Washington, D.C., said she considers the therapy actually being completely at odds with what it is trying to promote — mutual trust with a parent.

"It can be immensely difficult for a child to regain full, genuine trust after being forcibly held, regardless of the parent's good intentions," Hunt said.

Thompson said he is aware of a few Utah clinics that offer the therapy, although they are not completely up front with parents about exactly what is involved. He said he is also aware that some Utah therapists have been contacted by parents in Colorado trying to continue therapy now banned there.

E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com