19 Dec 2022

Volunteer devotes more than 40 years fighting for justice for Lake Alice victims

9:08 pm on 19 December 2022

By Leighton Keith of Open Justice by NZ Herald

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A Royal Commission report detailed the abuse and torture of survivors of the Rangitīkei facility's adolescent unit. Photo: Supplied

A volunteer researcher who worked tirelessly for more than 40 years to bring to light the abuse at Lake Alice hopes the victims will finally get justice for the neglect, terror, fear and torment they suffered.

In 2019, Victor Boyd, of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights New Zealand, helped former patient Paul Zentveld make a complaint to the United Nations (UN) Convention Against Torture, which led to New Zealand's Royal Commission into Abuse in Care Inquiry.

Boyd was introduced to Zentveld in 2005 and is listed as his "counsel" in the complaint to the UN.

He first began investigating the allegations in 1977 into treatment at the hospital unit in Manawatū-Whanganui, where former patients had described an atmosphere of intense fear.

Zentveld was 14 when he was first admitted to the hospital's child and adolescent wing in the 1970s, where he was subjected to electro-convulsive therapy, drugged, and placed in solitary confinement.

The UN's committee against torture upheld the complaint and recommended the government conduct a "prompt, impartial and independent investigation" into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment at the unit, run by psychiatrist Dr Selwyn Leeks.

Last week, the commission's 500-page report was released which detailed the sexual, physical, emotional and psychological abuse and torture of survivors of the Rangitīkei facility's adolescent unit.

The findings came as no surprise to Boyd, who gave evidence to the inquiry.

"I thought that the level of detail, documented into what went on there was accurate and very good. They had done a really good job of detailing how complaints were not taken up and information was not being shared," Boyd said.

"It was very gratifying to see after all of this time."

No recommendations for change have been made so far, but the Royal Commission will make them in its final report, to be released in June 2023.

The commission said it was wrong no one had ever been found accountable and survivors were still waiting for justice.

Boyd, now 71, agreed with those findings and believes the recommendations should include outlawing forced treatment, and guidelines for better communication and information sharing between government departments.

Statements from New Zealand's Medical and Nursing Councils should also be required, acknowledging what its members did was wrong, he said.

"There needs to be practices put in place so this can never happen again," he said.

"There has been no real accountability, admissions or remorse shown by former staff."

Boyd said staffing levels had been blamed but the explanation did not sit well with him as many hospitals were short-staffed today.

"But they don't go abusing their patients like they did at Lake Alice."

Boyd first became aware of allegations of foul play at the hospital while working as a printer in Whanganui in 1977, when Hake Halo's story publicly revealed the extent of the harrowing treatment hundreds of children were experiencing.

Halo was just 13 when he was sent to the Lake Alice Child and Adolescent Unit in 1975 where he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) numerous times.

Colleagues provided Boyd, then aged 26, with names and contacts for former patients due to his interest in human rights.

At first he found the stories "a bit unbelievable" but after hearing the same chilling details from several complainants, "it kind of all came together".

"Because the media [around Halo] was happening at the same time, I knew that this wasn't just a one-off," Boyd said.

"They [former patients] kind of knew each other but at the same time they didn't ring each other up regularly."

The commission's report found in the almost eight years the unit operated, 1970 to 1978, Leeks and the staff 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.

Boyd said his interest had been piqued by the horrific allegations he had heard, and despite three police investigations resulting in no charges being laid, his gut instincts told him he was on the right track.

"To me it looked like medical experimentation against children, with inadequate medical basis for it.

"I think that that is appalling, that's another reason we kept going. I kept working on it, but because I didn't have lists or anything like that it was still running around cold calling people."

Paul Zentveld

Paul Zentveld Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Zentveld has told the media he 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," Zentveld said.

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

A fourth police investigation resulted in an 89-year-old man being charged with eight counts of ill-treating children.

John Richard Corkran has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He has elected a trial by jury and will reappear in Whanganui District Court in June, 2023.

Leeks was never charged before his death in January 2022, at the age of 92.

* This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.