15 Dec 2022

Royal Commission into Abuse in Care inquiry details suffering of adolescent Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital patients

2:05 pm on 15 December 2022
Lake Alice Hospital

The case-study report said Lake Alice's child and adolescent unit, which was set up for young people with mental distress or illness, became a place of abuse. Photo: PUBLIC DOMAIN./ Pawful

Torture, sexual, physical, emotional and psychological abuse of over 100 survivors of the adolescent unit of Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital in the 1970s has been spelled out in a nearly 500-page report.

The Royal Commission into Abuse in Care inquiry was released on Thursday afternoon.

The child and adolescent until operated at the hospital between 1972 and 1980 and the Commission estimates between 400 and 450 young people went through the unit. It has identified 362 of them.

More than a hundred survivors of the unit and other witnesses spoke to the Royal Commission during the course of its investigation.

"Time and time again we heard and read of tamariki running away. They never got far. No one ever asked why they were running, or what they were running from."

The case-study report said the unit, which was set up for young people with mental distress or illness, became a place of abuse, particularly at the hands of psychiatrist, Dr Selwyn Leeks.

He used electric shock treatment, and painful drugs, such as paraldegyde, not as a treatment, but as a punishment, which was abusive and unjustified even by the standards of the day.

The report said that in the almost eight years the unit operated, Leeks and the staff at Lake Alice inflicted, or oversaw, serious abuse - some amounting to torture - in what quickly became a culture of mistreatment, physical violence, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect, threats, degradation and other forms of humiliation.

"The torture survivors experienced included electric shocks, often without anaesthetic, applied not just to the temples but to the limbs, torso and genitals. They were given excruciatingly painful and immobilising injections of paraldehyde, administered by staff as punishment or as an improper form of aversion therapy, not for legitimate medical reasons. Children and young people were held in solitary confinement and deprived of their liberty, sometimes for days or weeks on end."

It said the atmosphere in the unit was one of intense fear.

The Royal Commission said Lake Alice was a place of misery, neglect, terror, fear and torment.

The report said survivors' cultures were ignored. Disabled survivors were not recognised or cared for. They were not believed when they tried to tell what was happening to them. Instead they were neglected, threatened, degraded and humiliated.

The commission said the children and young people at the unit were out of sight, many miles away from whānau and friends. They and their whānau suffered incalculable, lifelong tūkino or harm at the hands of so-called professionals.

For Māori survivors and their whānau, the tūkino, abuse, harm and trauma was compounded by the ongoing effects of colonisation and settlement.

"The enduring abuse inflicted upon them and succeeding generations of their whānau, hapu, iwi, support networks and communities has been magnified over the past four and a half decades by the failure of numerous State agencies to fully investigate their claims. As a result, the State institutions whose flawed systems enabled the abuse and failed to prevent it have not properly acknowledged their responsibility. They have not held individual perpetrators to account and they have not provided puretumu torowhānui, holistic redress, and neither has it been provided in a timely manner."

There had been three police investigations since 1977 which came to nothing, but a fourth investigation resulted in an 89-year old man being charged with eight counts of ill-treating children. John Richard Corkran pleaded not guilty. He returns to court in June, 2023.

In the Whanganui District Court, Corkran pleaded not guilty to eight charges and elected trial by jury.

A small number of temporary redactions have been made to the report to protect the integrity of the criminal trial.

Leeks was never charged. He died in January 2022, at the age of 92.

"It is wrong that no one has ever been found accountable and that survivors are still waiting for justice," the commission said.

"The story of the Lake Alice Child and Adolescent unit is a shameful chapter in the history of Aotearoa New Zealand, which must be faced head-on without excuses or explanations, but with a determination to accept the injustice, make proper amends and ensure this tragedy never happens again."

It said the themes and findings in the report reflected broader systemic issues that it was continuing to investigate across all settings.

The Royal Commission has not made any recommendations for change in its report, saying it will do so in its final report into abuse in care which will be released in June 2023.

Minister of Internal Affairs Jan Tinetti said the report catalogued the horrific experiences of children and young people who were patients at the until during its short existence.

"The report describes a litany of failings by State agencies. The patients suffered mistreatment by staff, and there were poor oversight and referral procedures. Further, a series of investigations into abuse at the unit have delivered unsatisfactory results for Lake Alice survivors."

During the Royal Commission's hearing into the Lake Alice unit, the Ministry of Health acknowledged there was systemic failure in the care of patients at the unit.

"The abuse was completely unjustified, both by today's standards and the standards of the time. It is a shameful episode in the history of care in New Zealand," Tinetti said.

Minister for the Public Service Chris Hipkins said the government would ensure all the final report recommendations, including those stemming from the Lake Alice report, were thoroughly and promptly considered.

A survivor of the Lake Alice unit, Paul Zentveld believed reading the report would be a shock for the government.

"It's damning, but it is the truth. Torture is torture to children no matter who they are."

"It is not an insult anymore, this is a victory for all survivors."

He said a lot of tears would be spilt from survivors with the release of the report.

"Justice will be served with accountability from these government departments. It's the only way to do it and I hope it works out."

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