Torture at Lake Alice “Hospital”, New Zealand

Philip Hickey, PhD
3
1032

According to Wikipedia, Lake Alice Hospital was a rural psychiatric facility in Lake Alice, Manawatū-Whanganui, New Zealand.  It opened in August, 1950, and closed its doors finally in October 1999.

Also from Wikipedia:

“Former patients of the hospital’s child and adolescent unit made allegations that abuse took place there during the 1970s, including the use of electroconvulsive therapy and paraldehyde injections as punishment.[4] The New Zealand government issued a written apology in 2001, and has paid out a total of NZ$10.7 million in compensation to 183 former patients.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

One of the references in the Wiki article was to Murphy, Padraic (11 July 2003) “Probe on shock doctor claims”, published in The Age, a Melbourne-based online news site.  Here are some quotes:

“Cheltenham psychiatrist Dr Selwyn Leeks, 74, is alleged to have allowed children to be punished with electric-shock treatment from 1972 to 1977 when he headed the now-closed child and adolescent unit at the Lake Alice psychiatric hospital on NZ’s North Island.”

“Most of the patients were children in the 1970s who were admitted to the hospital because of behavioural difficulties. An inquiry in 1997 found they were subjected to various forms of punishment including electroconvulsive therapy, locked away with adult patients, or given painful injections of the sedative paraldehyde.”

“Dr Leeks moved to Australia in 1977 after he was criticised in a preliminary inquiry into practices at the hospital. He has practised across Melbourne specialising in child psychiatry, most recently from offices in Cheltenham.”

The Age has confirmed that Victorian police are also investigating claims made by several patients treated by Dr Leeks after he moved to Australia.” [Emphasis added]

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Rosemary Thomson, a barrister and a survivor of Lake Alice, published an article in Newsroom on 21 January 2020 (updated on 6 January 2021).  Here’s a quote:

“A member of the nursing staff who was also spoken to accepted there had been some cruelty and had objected after helping Leeks give unmodified ECT [i.e. shocks without anesthesia or muscle relaxants] to a youth who had run away. Leeks told him not to question his clinical judgment and reminded him that he lived in a hospital house. The nursing staff member said: ‘I think that Dr Leeks put himself above being personally affected by administering such treatment, and in so doing, failed to recognise the development of his own sadism and that of the staff that worked for him.’

He went on to say the main flaw in the system in the 1970s was that psychiatrists were ‘all-powerful’. It followed that nurses were not able to question doctors’ orders.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Here’s a November 2020 quote from David Williams, a Newsroom investigative reporter:

“Then there was evidence from Aucklander Leonie McInroe, a survivor of state psychiatric facility Lake Alice, who said after she filed her legal claim the Crown assumed the role of abuser and perpetrator.”

“‘When I filed my claim, instead of compassion, justice, validation and an apology, I received nine gruelling years of emotional battering, abuse and bullying from the Crown,’ McInroe told the hearing.

‘There were ongoing, prolonged, intentional delays, obstruction tactics and obstruction strategies and it felt like the Crown were treating me with the callous indifference and cruelty that Dr Leeks had. Only worse. It was worse because I expected fairness and justice from the Crown.'”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

On 20 July 2006, the New Zealand Herald ran an article titled “Lake Alice doctor pre-empts tribunal”.  The author was Martin Johnson.  Here are some quotes:

“Dr Selwyn Leeks, the psychiatrist accused of mistreating young patients at Lake Alice Hospital in the 1970s, has effectively handed in his medical licence, on the eve of a potentially damning disciplinary hearing.

“But on Tuesday Dr Leeks, who is in his mid-70s, gave the board an undertaking that he would stop practising any form of medicine.”

“Dr Leeks, who could not be contacted last night, headed the hospital’s child and adolescent unit, which closed in the late 1970s.

In 2001, the Government gave apologies and compensation to a group of former patients of the unit. It later extended these to a second group, bringing to $10.7 million the total paid to 183 people.”

“One of the complainants, a 45-year-old Auckland man, was last night jubilant, but would have preferred Dr Leeks to go through the hearing.

‘The boys have been waiting nearly 30 years for this,’ said the man – who asked not to be named – in a reference to former patients.

He was admitted to Lake Alice, near Wanganui, several times between the ages of 11 and 16.

He was repeatedly punished with electro-convulsive therapy, painful drugs and solitary confinement for offences such as running away, throwing apples ‘and other boyish pranks’.”

“The Citizens Commission on Human Rights, an anti-psychiatry group which uncovered abuses at Lake Alice in 1976 and has been helping with investigations since, said Dr Leeks had found an easy way out of the hearings after his ‘reign of terror on around 400 children, possibly as young as 4’.

‘This is the first time in nearly 30 years that so much evidence has been amassed in one place, including statements from victims and staff testifying to the brutality and fear they endured under Dr Leeks,’ said executive director Steve Green.”

“‘It is up to the New Zealand police to see that justice is done for the victims of Lake Alice.

‘Thirty-three people have filed criminal complaints so far.’

The police are reviewing the complaints.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In October 2015, Alice de Sturler published an article on the website Defrosting Cold Cases.  The piece is titled Child Abuse at Lake Alice.  Here’s a quote:

“An inquiry by retired New Zealand High Court Judge Sir Rodney Gallen found that the Lake Alice children were controlled by ‘aversion therapy,’ were forced to help move the ECT machine into the room where it was used, and were made to watch as it was administered to other children. All former patients at the inquiry spoke about the screaming which other children could easily hear.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In August 2006, Martin Johnson published another piece in the NZ Herald:  “Psychiatrist must pay $55,000 after sexual abuse case.”  Here are some quotes:

“Former New Zealand psychiatrist Dr Selwyn Leeks has been ordered to pay $55,000 in damages for sexually abusing a former patient.

The payment was ordered by an Australian court which found that Dr Leeks ‘took advantage … of a disturbed psychiatric patient’.

The 77-year-old is also being investigated by New Zealand police over claims by former child and youth patients that he abused them at Lake Alice Hospital near Wanganui in the 1970s.

He escaped a potentially damning disciplinary hearing before the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria last month by effectively surrendering his medical licence in return for the case being shelved.”

“The sexual abuse claim was heard as a civil case in the Victoria County Court.

Judge Jim Duggan said in his verdict: ‘I conclude that a senior and well-credentialled psychiatrist took advantage of the vulnerability of a disturbed psychiatric patient for the purposes of sexual gratification.’

He awarded the woman $55,000 damages.”

“The Australian woman, who has had depression and anxiety and is now aged 54, claimed Dr Leeks fondled her breasts and put his finger into her vagina during consultations in 1979 or 1980.

She said that when she stopped her visits, he urged her not to disclose what he had done, telling her: ‘You’re a long-term psychiatric patient and no one will believe you.’

The judge said she made complaints to the police and the medical board, but ‘these were not taken any further’.”

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UNITED NATIONS CONFIRMS THAT TORTURE OCCURRED

In July 2017, Victor Boyd of CCHR submitted a complaint to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) on behalf of Paul Zentveld, who had been first admitted to the Lake Alice facility in 1974 when he was 13.  He was subsequently admitted to Lake Alice four more times for a total confinement period of two years and ten months.

In May 2020, Jan Eastgate, President of CCHR International, wrote a piece for the TruthAboutECT website.  Here’s a quote:

“New Zealand police announced that a fresh inquiry into child torture using electroshock at Lake Alice psychiatric hospital in the 1970s could lead to criminal charges and extradition of psychiatrist responsible, Selwyn Leeks.[1] Despite 40 years since the abuses occurred, a December 2019 damning report from the United Nations Committee on Torture promoted [presumably should read prompted] police to reopen the case. The NZ government reported, ‘Police consider the allegations of ECT applied to the patients’ genitals could reach the threshold of an indecent assault under the Crimes Act 1961.'”

Here’s a quote from the UN Committee Against Torture’s report (dated 23 January 2020):

“In 1976 and 1977, a number of complaints were made to the Government and medical organizations about treatment using an electric shock machine on children on various parts of their bodies and administering drugs delivered as a punishment and not for therapeutic purposes. In 1976 and 1977, a Commission of Inquiry was conducted into the treatment of a 13-year old boy at Lake Alice, but no wrongdoing or malpractice in the use of electroconvulsive therapy was found, one of the justifications being that such therapy given to children without anaesthetic is acceptable because their bones are supple and would not break during convulsions. In 1977, the Medical Council investigated a complaint by a former patient alleging use of an electroconvulsive therapy machine by Dr. Leeks to administer painful electric shocks, but there were no sanctions, so Dr. Leeks was free to continue to practise psychiatry on children. Also in 1977, following a complaint to the police about painful electric shocks administered to the bodies of two children at Lake Alice, the police found no criminal conduct, but only ‘lack of judgment’ by staff. Finally, a 1977 complaint to the Ombudsman’s Office resulted in stricter rules regarding consent for patient treatment and termination of the practice of the Department of Social Welfare of placing children and young persons subject to guardianship orders in psychiatric hospitals without recourse to the formal committal procedures contained in the Mental Health Act. The complaints did not result in any prosecutions and the psychiatrist who was running the unit left New Zealand to work in Melbourne, Australia.

Much later, in 1997, several articles were published in the media in New Zealand and later in Australia on the abuse of children at Lake Alice. Thereafter, former patients started coming forward. In 1999, a civil claim was filed before the Wellington [New Zealand] High Court on behalf of 56 former patients. That number had increased to 85 by 2001, when the Government compensated these victims with a payment of $NZ 6 million and a letter of apology. A further 110 claimants had come forward by 2009, including the complainant, at the invitation of the Government to provide further compensation. All the claims of ill-treatment and abuse were dealt with by the way of a general apology4 and ex gratia payments to each individual.5 In total, $NZ 12.8 million was paid out by the Government to 195 victims.6

In 1999, the Medical Council terminated Dr. Leeks’ medical practising registration. The Council stated that as Dr. Leeks was no longer registered with the Council, allegations of ill-treatment would not be investigated by them.

In 2001, retired High Court judge Sir Rodney Gallen was commissioned by the Government to review the complaints concerning Lake Alice. Sir Rodney found that the administration of unmodified [i.e., without muscle relaxants or anesthesia] electroconvulsive therapy was not only common at Lake Alice but routine, and that it was administered not as therapy but as a punishment. He also found that many of the children admitted to the hospital were not mentally ill.

In 2003, the complainant filed a complaint with the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria in Australia, as Dr. Leeks had been practising there since he left New Zealand in early 1978. In 2006, the Board prepared for a formal hearing under the Medical Practice Act 1994. They had 39 allegations against Dr. Leeks of ‘infamous conduct’ in a professional setting when practising at Lake Alice in the 1970s. The complainant was set to fly to Australia and give evidence, but on the eve of the date set for the formal hearing, 19 July 2006, Dr. Leeks resigned all forms of practice. The Board accepted this and the hearing therefore never took place, as the Board considered that it had no jurisdiction over a practitioner who had resigned. In 2011, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency stated that ‘the community was protected from all forms of Dr. Leeks’ Lake Alice conduct’ and that the outcome was the same as if a complaint against Dr. Leeks had been successful.

Also in 2003, following the invitation of the Government of New Zealand to former Lake Alice victims who had received an apology to make a criminal complaint to the police, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights submitted several complaints to the police. In 2006, the complainant himself submitted his case to the police, alleging criminal conduct by former Lake Alice staff, including Dr. Leeks. The police investigation of the complaints of the complainant and other victims was initially focused on possible violations of the Mental Health Act 1969. The police explained that the Act was the correct legal framework under which to examine the complaints, but that part of the law required complaints of that type to be made within six months of the alleged incidents. In 2010, the police therefore closed the investigation on the grounds that they could not mount a criminal prosecution, given the passage of time since the events had taken place, the unavailability of witnesses, and the likelihood of a defence that the time limit had been exceeded and that there had already been an investigation.

On 4 June 2009, the Committee adopted concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of New Zealand and requested the State party [New Zealand] to ‘take appropriate measures to ensure that allegations of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in the ‘historic cases’ are investigated promptly and impartially, perpetrators duly prosecuted, and the victims accorded redress, including adequate compensation and rehabilitation’ (CAT/C/NZL/CO/5).

In 2015, the complainant requested the police report of the investigation regarding his complaint of torture and ill-treatment. This report included the fact that the police considered that the treatment the complainant had received amounted to a crime.7 Despite this finding, the police held that it was too late to prosecute.”

However, in its concluding paragraphs, the Committee Against Torture (CAT) noted:

“In the light of the above, the Committee considers that the State party’s failure to conduct an effective investigation into the circumstances surrounding the acts of torture and ill-treatment suffered by the complainant while he was at the Child and Adolescent Unit of the Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital is incompatible with the State party’s obligations under articles 12, 13 and 14 of the Convention to ensure that the competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture and/or ill-treatment has been committed.36 [Emphasis added]

The Committee, acting under article 22 (7) of the Convention, decides that the facts before it reveal a violation by the State party of articles 12, 13 and 14 of the Convention.

The Committee urges the State party to:

(a) Conduct a prompt, impartial and independent investigation into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment made by the complainant including, where appropriate, the filing of specific torture and/or ill-treatment charges against the perpetrators and the application of the corresponding penalties under domestic law;

(b) Provide the complainant with access to appropriate redress, including fair compensation and access to the truth, in line with the outcome of the investigation;

(c) Make public the present decision and disseminate its content widely, with a view to preventing similar violations of the Convention in the future.

In accordance with rule 118 (5) of its rules of procedure, the Committee requests the State party to inform it, within 90 days of the date of transmission of this decision, of the steps it has taken in response to the above findings.”

CCHR New Zealand director Mike Ferriss called the decision monumental.

“It [the UN decision] fully supports what Lake Alice victims have been wanting all along – to bring to justice those responsible for the psychiatric abuse of children using an ECT machine and drugs.” (here)

PRESENT STATUS OF INVESTIGATION

In September 2020, New Zealand’s Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry issued a document setting out the scope of its investigation into the abuse and neglect that occurred at the Lake Alice “Hospital” in the 1970’s. Here are some quotes from the scope document:

The Inquiry will investigate:

“The nature and extent of any abuse of children and adolescents placed in the Unit”

“The extent to which Police, government and professional bodies protected children and adolescents from abuse, and held perpetrators to account”

“The adequacy of the State’s redress and rehabilitation response to victims and survivors of abuse at the unit”

The Royal Commission has scheduled an evidence-gathering hearing concerning the torture inflicted on children at Lake Alice “Hospital” for 14-25 June, 2021.

Hopefully, the victims’ calls for justice for tortures covered up for so long will be properly addressed, and the perpetrator(s) called to account.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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