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Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Parole for an Adoptive Mother: Whose Fault Was the Child's Death?

The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole has decided to parole Jennete Killpack, who was convicted in 2006 of the child abuse homicide of her 4-year-old adopted daughter Cassandra several years previously. This disturbing case opens many questions about the responsibility of therapists whose advice to parents leads to tragedy.

Part of the Killpack story can be read at http://www.deseretnews.com/article/635174544/Killpack-receives-prison-sentence.html.
In 2002, four-year-old Cassandra Killpack died when her parents, who claim they were following the advice of therapists from the Cascade Center for Family Growth in Orem, Utah (who had been implicated in another child’s death), allegedly forced her to drink an excessive amount of water. Cassandra died at the home of her adoptive parents, Richard and Jennette Killpack, after the first week of a two week “intensive” holding therapy treatment regimen. In the six days prior to her death, Cassandra had been subjected to 15 or more hours of coercive procedures, including restraint and forced exercise.

Cassandra was first evaluated at the clinic by a former therapist whose license had been revoked in Oregon following his use of holding therapy and related practices . Oregon officials had described his behavior as “egregious and reprehensible” He was denied a license in Utah and claims to have been doing “pastoral counseling” after becoming an ordained minister through the Internet site http://www.ulc.org. This practitioner informed the Killpacks that Cassandra had severe Reactive Attachment Disorder and prescribed a two week “intensive”.

The Killpacks described the first five days of the “intensive” treatment as follows: Sessions were held daily, Monday through Friday, and were also scheduled for the following week. Each session lasted approximately three hours. Normally at least four adults were present, the two parents and two therapists or “support staff.”

Treatment in the “intensive” sessions alternated between holding therapy restraint methods and forced physical activity. Cassandra was restrained on the floor by the adults. The Killpacks say the therapists yelled at the child and told her to fight back, in an effort to purge her allegedly repressed feelings. When holding therapy was not being done, Cassandra was forced to perform repetitive physical activity such as kicking the wall, jumping jacks, running in place , and so forth. Cassandra’s older sister witnessed some of the sessions and described them to investigators, saying that the younger child was repeatedly yelled at during both the restraint and the physical activity .

The Killpacks say they were instructed to continue this manner of treatment toward Cassandra at home in order to facilitate a “breakthrough”. They say they were told by one therapist that if Cassandra did something wrong, like “stealing” food, they were to use a “paradoxical intervention”, forcing her to repeat the infraction over and over. They claim that one therapist said that Cassandra should be forced to drink water as a consequence for misbehavior.

The Killpacks apparently felt compelled to continue the harsh treatment during the two week “intensive” because they had been told that if they gave in to Cassandra’s “manipulation” she would not have the desired “breakthrough.” They claim they were told that if the two week “intensive” did not work, Cassandra would grow up to be a prostitute, drug addict, or school shooter and possibly murder her parents or family members. Furthermore, according to the Killpacks, they were told that if they followed through with the recommended course of treatment they were assured a “one hundred percent success rate.”

The Killpacks claim they were taught to force Cassandra to be completely dependent upon her adopted mother, Jennette, in order to bond with her. Cassandra was required to obtain permission from her mother for virtually everything, including food, drink, and use of the bathroom.

However, Cassandra took some of her sister’s drink without permission from her mother. As a “consequence” (punishment), Jennette forced Cassandra to sit on a bar stool and drink a large amount of water. When Cassandra became weak and semi-responsive, her parents interpreted this as manipulation and defiance. Believing Cassandra to be on the verge of the supposed “breakthrough” predicted by the therapists, the parents persisted in their treatment. With Cassandra’s hands tied behind her back, they restrained Cassandra, tilting her head back, and forcing more water down her throat, using sufficient force that the autopsy showed cutting and bruising of her lips. Mrs. Killpack was apparently the primary actor in this, but she had one of her older children help her.

Cassandra vomited a foamy substance and collapsed on the floor. The Killpacks told her to get a towel to clean up her mess. When she did not get up, they again interpreted her behavior as defiance and persisted in their demands. When the Killpacks finally realized that Cassandra was unconscious, they attempted to revive her and called 911. In the recorded 911 call, Richard Killpack explained to the dispatcher that Cassandra had a lot of “emotional problems”. He said, “she’s very, very sneaky … we gave her a lot of water.” He told the emergency room physician that they “forced the girl to drink lots of water as therapy.”

Cassandra died hours later at the hospital. The cause of death was determined to be hyponatremia, also known as water intoxication.

Mrs. Killpack was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to between one and 15 years imprisonment. At her sentencing, it was noted that she took no responsibility for what she had done. However, the parole decision, and her planned release in January 2012 , are to some extent based on her statement that she understands better what are her triggers that might lead her to lose control in dealing with a child.

Was Cassandra’s death Mrs. Killpack’s fault? Yes, of course it was, in ways both subtle and obvious. Her agreement to adopt Cassandra appears to have been made without common sense judgment about her ability to care successfully for more young children than she already had. In addition, she was unable to consider the nature of the advice she was receiving and to realize that the recommended actions were cruel and potentially dangerous. She may have had little insight into her own anger and frustration and the fact that these could lead her to go too far in doing what she had been told to do. She surely lacked reflection on her actions when she engaged her older daughter, then seven years old, in torturing Cassandra.

But was anyone else at fault here? The reasons that Mr. Killpack was not convicted in Cassandra’s death most probably had to do with the four living Killpack children and the consequences for them if both parents went to prison. He must bear a burden of responsibility for failing to consider and deal with what was being done to Cassandra, but imprisonment may not have been necessary.

There are, however, some responsible parties whose involvement in Cssandra’s death have gone unpunished. Among these are the staff of the Cascade Center for Family Growth, whose dire warnings about the need to treat Cassandra brutally were a direct cause of Mrs.Killpack’s lethal actions. As we have seen in other cases, the therapists, who were not present at child deaths or injuries, watch from a position of comfort while the parents who took their advice are imprisoned. In the Cascade case, an action to revoke the professional license of a leading therapist, Lawrence van Bloem, was in preparation, but he was killed in a car accident before this took place. Other staff members have left Utah and then come back to work in various guises such as massage therapy, in which their activities are not carefully monitored.

Somewhere, too, there are one or two responsible individuals who made a decision in 1990 to invite to Utah some Colorado holding therapists who offered training to state employees and essentially made this approach officially acceptable.

It is hardly practical to pass and enforce laws about specific types of therapy. There have been some efforts to do this, but the results have been weak; in any case, if the issue is how parents treat their children at home, there has been little success in monitoring any aspect of this.

But where, I ask, are the licensing boards and state professional organizations in these situations? National organizations like the National Association of Social Workers have made some attempts at adopting policies rejecting methods like holding therapy, and that is much appreciated by concerned persons. However, it is at the state level that decisions are made to reprimand professionals whose behavior is wrong. Licensing actions have a power that is found nowhere else, but it is not being used. It is time to change all this and protect the public by monitoring psychotherapists and “consultants” who give dangerous advice.


  1. I agree that it is frustrating (and mystifying) that professional organisations have been so weak in this area. Have you come across a UK organisation called the Clinic for Boundaries Studies? I know very little about them but it sounds like they may be trying to address some of the points you raise. They can be found at http://www.professionalboundaries.org.uk/

  2. I didn't know about them, but now I do,thanks to you. I inquired of them whether they're interested in non-client cases like that of Simon Singh, as well as in the client situationslike the one described above. I see that one of their people is studying EMDR-- that took me aback a bit.

  3. Good question. Where are the licensing boards? All too often, either asleep at the wheel or ignoring valid complaints, in my opinion. Why this is the case, I can only speculate but there does seem to be a tremendous gap and time lag between when certain interventions are found to be ineffective or even dangerous and when the practice of them is stopped by clinicians who unfortunately don't seem to have kept themselves up to date.

    Although I would agree that the parents bear responsibility, the primary responsibility should have rested with the therapists if it can be shown that the parent was acting on the therapist's advice. It doesn't seem likely to me that the parents, left to their own devices, would have carried out such a bizarre punishment, had they not been advised to do "paradoxical interventions" but I would imagine that would be difficult to prove in a court of law.

    Perhaps the answer would be to require therapists to keep very detailed, specific records of exactly what they are instructing their clients to do at home with their children. That way it could be better determined what part the therapist was responsible for. In this case it seems to have been the parents word against the therapists.

  4. I'm sure you've seen this, but in case you haven't: http://www.anchoragepress.com/articles/2011/01/27/news/doc4d41ab9ead2d4537935093.txt

  5. Thanks, theorclair-- I am wanting to blog about this hot sauce business but have been dealing with another project. Hot sauce-ing resembles the old-fashioned washing-mouth-with-soap (which must have been pretty bad back in the days of lye soap), but I also have to wonder whether it's associated with the old nature cure assumption that disorders are caused by a lack of heat. There are web sites that recommend treating yourself with cayenne pepper.

    I suppose this sounds as if I think it's okay-- of course I don't-- but I do wonder what the source is.

  6. What immediately jumped out at me in this was that this child was black and the foster (adopted w/e) family were white. That shouldn't be allowed. They believe this small child is going to trust some strange white people? This child should have been with a black family.

    Second thing -- this water punishment immediately sounded like something a Scientologist or some other religious cult would do. Then I learn they were in Utah. I wonder if they were Mormon?

    Anyway, that poor poor child. She was abused, sexually abused etc then got labeled as having some crap called 'reactive attachment disorder' (what a load of horse hockey -- you think a child isn't going to have issues trusting people after being abused? Good God man -- it's not a disorder -- it's trauma!!) and was placed in a home with some strange people with strange practices not even of her own race who killed her with water.

    Those parents are whacked. I looked up their photos. That mother was smiling in her mug shot. What freaks.

    1. They were Mormon. The little girl was my niece. I just found out that her mother was my long lost sister. Her name wasn't even Cassandra. The adopted parents changed her name. She was adopted at the age of 2 and the Killpacks changed her name.

    2. What a terrible story for you to learn about, when it's too late for you to do anything about it!

      If your sister was long lost, I don't suppose you know anything about the adoption and how the Killpacks got into the picture, but if you have any information, I'd be very interested in hearing about it.

    3. @hurt Auntie if you get this please contact me. Which sister are you? Lying murderers!!!

    4. @hurt Auntie please contact me This is Autumn`s mother. Which of my sisters are you?

  7. As a matter of fact, I believe the family were Mormons-- but I want you to know that two of the strongest fighters against this kind of treatment whom I've met are both Mormons. One of them has made serious sacrifices both financially and professionally in efforts to speak out against coercive "treatments". We can't blame this on Mormonism.

    Unfortunately, our country is home to a number of people of different beliefs, races, and so on, who easily fall for the persuasion of quacks, and we do very little to protect those families by regulating therapies or advice provided to parents. I love the First Amendment... BUT words can do harm, just as much as sticks and stones.

  8. You write:
    The reasons that Mr. Killpack was not tried in Cassandra’s death most probably had to do with the four living Killpack children and the consequences for them if both parents went to prison.

    In fact both parents stood trial together; Mr. Killpack however was acquitted.


  9. You're quite right-- I should have said "convicted", not "tried". I'll correct this.

  10. I know this is an old blog but I just read this story. I just looked up that evil monster, Jenette Killpack, and she now has a facebook page that shows her happy as can be with her children. Since her parole what is SHE doing to honor the name of the little girl that she tortured and killed. It seems like this little girl has just been forgotten. What a sham.

    1. Anon, I certainly hold no brief for the Killpacks, but I would be much more concerned about punishment for those who instructed them to use these methods. There was at least one case in Utah where a child died of asphyxiation after her adoptive parents were told that if they did not lie down on top of her when she misbehaved, they would not be allowed to adopt. It's true that sometimes people invent abusive treatments by themselves, but there are also many who have been told that certain kinds of abuse are "therapeutic". Those instructors need to be stopped.

  11. Ms. Mercer,

    I do not know how I did not find your blog previously. I am from Utah and have personally experienced the return of holding therapy "in various guises" you speak of in this article. In this case it was orchestrated by the former attorney for Cascade and implemented under one who claimed to practice play therapy for my son, who was four years old at the time. After a number of events, I was able to get the therapy stopped. But I have been seeking to research why this happened and why it still seems to happen in our area by those who do harm with impunity. I am amazed by the details you were able to collect on the Killpack case. I don't know how you were able to get this information but I would love to correspond with you or take any advice from you on how to expose the quacks and the quackery so prevalent here. Incidentally, the board of pardons in the Killpack case seems to recognize that the "therapists" did in fact instruct the Killpacks why the local prosecutor not only refused to investigate, but also turned the Killpack's statement against them as an attempt to spread blame.

    1. Hello F.N.-- I got the Killpack name from colleagues in Utah and could get everything else on line-- the problem is finding out about an event to begin with. I would like to hear much more about your experiences. You can contact me at jean.mercer@stockton.edu. I hope you will be willing to name some names, because without that it is very hard to expose anyone. (You don't have to give me your name, though, if you don't want to.)