clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Utah jettisons holding therapy

State orders last practitioner to end the controversial practice

PROVO — The state's last practitioner of a controversial form of therapy has been ordered by state licensing officials to stop practicing it and will have her therapy sessions supervised for the next three years.

And that could mean the end of holding therapy in Utah.

If Jennie Murdock Gwilliam — who used to run Cascade Center for Family Growth with the late Larry VanBloem — violates the terms of her probation, her license as a clinical social worker will be revoked.

"She and Larry believed in attachment therapy very much," said Craig Snyder, an attorney who represented Gwilliam and VanBloem in legal matters pertaining to their licenses to practice therapy. "(Gwilliam) feels that holding therapy is appropriate and that it helps people, but she doesn't intend to practice in that arena anymore."

Holding therapy has been decried as medical quackery and physical abuse by its detractors and celebrated as a miraculous balm to severely troubled children by its supporters.

There are still two pending lawsuits against Gwilliam by former clients who say they were physically and mentally abused during therapy sessions at the Orem treatment facility.

Snyder said Gwilliam had decided to stop practicing holding therapy even before the state ordered her to do so.

The sudden death of VanBloem in a December car crash devastated her, Snyder said.

Rather than disputing allegations of abuse at a scheduled January hearing before the state's Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, Gwilliam agreed Jan. 26 to a stipulation.

"She was not admitting or denying any of the allegations," Snyder said. "After Larry's death it didn't make sense to go through with a five- to six-week hearing on stuff she doesn't plan to do anymore."

According to the stipulation, Gwilliam "may use restraint techniques on the client only to protect the client or another person from physical injury" and may not use "restraint techniques for therapeutic purposes."

Allegations of abuse at Cascade first surfaced in 1997, and in 2002 the state filed a petition seeking to revoke the licenses of VanBloem and Gwilliam. The petition detailed five cases in which VanBloem and Gwilliam lay on top of children who were restrained by "methods including sitting on the child's legs or wrapping the child in a blanket."

The petition, which was disputed by VanBloem, Gwilliam and their supporters, also alleged that therapists at Cascade used their hands and knuckles to press into the child's abdomen and ribs, causing pain.

Then in 2002 Cascade was linked to the death of 4-year-old Cassandra Killpack.

Killpack was allegedly killed by her adoptive parents, who forced her to drink water until she passed out as punishment for taking a sibling's soft drink.

The Killpacks said they learned the punishment technique at Cascade, a charge that cast the therapy center into the national spotlight. VanBloem and Gwilliam denied involvement, and Cascade was not implicated in an investigation by the Utah County Attorney's Office.

Supporters of holding therapy believe that through physical poking and prodding, usually to the abdomen, children who have suffered severe physical or sexual abuse are able to release pent-up rage and frustration.

VanBloem and Gwilliam say they never hurt children during holding therapy sessions.

Gwilliam has moved to St. George, where she plans to continue practicing as a therapist.

Her therapy sessions must be monitored by a supervisor approved by the state, and physical contact with clients must be "brief and not repeated in the course of a clinical session ." Such contacts might include a hug, a pat on the shoulder or holding hands.

Gwilliam must also complete 20 hours of classes in "boundary violations and ethics approved by the Social Worker Licensing Board," must meet with the board periodically, and must inform the board of where she's working as a therapist.

Snyder said Gwilliam plans to work as a therapist for a state-approved agency that treats children in St. George's juvenile justice system.