Kirsty Johnston is an investigative reporter at the New Zealand Herald.

Opposition MPs: Ashley's treatment is against human rights

Opposition parties are urging Health Minister Jonathan Coleman to intervene and remove an autistic man from the tiny, isolated unit where he has been held for five years.

Ashley Peacock, 37, lives in almost permanent seclusion at a mental health rehabilitation facility in Porirua, allowed just 90 minutes a day outside.

Despite top-level warnings his treatment is a breach of human rights, more than half Ashley's time on the "de-escalation" wing at the unit has been confined to a single, cell-like room containing nothing but a plastic-covered mattress and a urine bottle.

An example of a seclusion room at a government-run mental health facility. Ashley Peacock is being held in a room similar to this. His parents have never been allowed inside. Photo / Supplied
An example of a seclusion room at a government-run mental health facility. Ashley Peacock is being held in a room similar to this. His parents have never been allowed inside. Photo / Supplied

He sleeps there, and when staff order it, can be locked in for long periods, including a two-and-a-half year stint with less than 30 minutes out each day for exercise.

Wellington MP Grant Robertson wrote to Dr Coleman this morning, asking him to intervene.

"I understand that you will not want to interfere with clinical decision-making in an individual case, but Ashley's case is such that I believe you must actively involve yourself."

Mr Robertson said he believed Ashley's treatment was against human rights "and such action is not befitting the values most New Zealanders would support".

Green Party health spokesman Kevin Hague said Dr Coleman was able, under section 32 of the New Zealand Public Health and Disability Act to give a directive to the Capital & Coast District Health Board (CCDHB) to get Ashley out of seclusion.

"The Minister of Health has specific powers to direct the Health Board to act and this is the sort of extreme case that requires the Minister to do so," Mr Hague said.

Ashley Peacock feeding the ponies nicknamed "Honey" and "Gorgeous" on his daily walk. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Ashley Peacock feeding the ponies nicknamed "Honey" and "Gorgeous" on his daily walk. Photo / Mark Mitchell

He said New Zealand had made an international commitment to end the use of seclusion, as it constitutes a form of torture.

"People shouldn't suffer the kind of treatment that Ashley Peacock has been subjected to because the National Government refuses to fund mental health services properly."

Read: Grant Robertson's letter to Minister of Health Jonathan Coleman here:

So far, Dr Coleman has only said Ashley's case was "very complex" and he had "huge sympathy" for Mr Peacock's parents.

"There are no easy answers in this case and my understanding is that health officials have been doing their very, very best in what are very difficult circumstances."

The minister said Mr Peacock's treatment was not the result of lack of funding.

He then deferred questions to the associate minister, Sam Lotu-Iiga, who had responsibility for disability support services and forensic mental health.

Dave and Marlena Peacock with a portrait of their son Ashley, who has spent more than five years locked in virtual seclusion at a mental health unit. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Dave and Marlena Peacock with a portrait of their son Ashley, who has spent more than five years locked in virtual seclusion at a mental health unit. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Mr Lotu-liga said he would not issue a directive to the health board to intervene.

"It's a complex case. I clearly have sympathies for the family," he said, repeating the same lines Mr Coleman said earlier this morning.

He would not give an indication on when Ashley might be let out of seclusion. He said "safety was paramount" and he understood Ashley's family were working with the health board.

Ashley, who is not a criminal, but has an intellectual disability and a schizophrenic illness, remains at the facility although both the Ombudsman and Human Rights Commission have repeatedly said he needs to come out.

Another report written this year to the National Intellectual Disability Care Agency, which has oversight of people with intellectual disabilities who have complex behavioural needs, strongly agreed with those conclusions.

"Ashley is a significantly disabled man who is managing as best he can in spite of his continually experiencing a traumatising internal world," the review said. "Ashley's current living environment is not appropriate to his needs."

Ashley, who was the subject of a documentary last year, is a compulsory patient under the Mental Health Act.

He has lived at Tawhirimatea since 2006, but was placed in the seclusion wing in 2010 after several violent episodes where he lashed out at other patients and staff. He was kept in because the assaults continued.

However the reviewers believe much of his aggression has been caused by his environment. They said there was a "mismatch" between Ashley's needs and the care he gets, and that for someone with sensory issues, the noise on the unit was too much.

Ashley Peacock while out for a walk near Porirua's Regional Rehabilitation Unit Tawhirimatea. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Ashley Peacock while out for a walk near Porirua's Regional Rehabilitation Unit Tawhirimatea. Photo / Mark Mitchell

They recommended a bespoke community service where Ashley could have a house and specialist staff to look after him, and "develop a life worth living".

Capital & Coast DHB say they have since put a "a process in place", however despite a provider being willing to take him, the necessary steps for Ashley's transition are yet to happen.

His elderly parents, Dave and Marlena Peacock, are fearful their son will never get out.

They say a combination of funding constraints, and a series of high-profile deaths involving mentally ill patients, are affecting Ashley's case.

"But tightening of funding should not be a justification to deny him basic human rights," Mrs Peacock said. "No one should have to endure what Ashley has endured. Seclusion is supposed to be a last resort, not a treatment like in his case."

Seclusion has been found to be traumatising for both staff and patients, and is considered a form of torture by the United Nations.

The practice is subject to a reduction policy in New Zealand, and is monitored by Crimes of Torture Act Inspectors from the Ombudsman's office. They, alongside the Human Rights Commission and dozens of advocates and other experts, believe seclusion is still over-used and have repeatedly highlighted Ashley's case as a concern.

Marlena Peacock with her son Ashley as a baby. Photo / Supplied
Marlena Peacock with her son Ashley as a baby. Photo / Supplied

A 2013 investigation by Ombudsman Ron Paterson found "little doubt" that the protracted use of seclusion had contributed to an ongoing deterioration of Ashley's mental condition.

"My view is that the current situation has persisted for far too long," he said.

Disability Rights Commissioner Paul Gibson did not think enough was being done for Ashley, and that keeping him locked up would not make him well.

"I can't see how anyone could find any justification for keeping someone in seclusion for this number of years."

In a 2011 letter, former Human Rights Commissioner Roslyn Noonan wrote: "I do have concerns about the use of seclusion, particularly where it is used for excessively long periods, as seems to be the case here."

The head of advocacy for IHC, Trish Grant, has been trying to help Ashley for a long time. "He shouldn't be stuck in an environment that is exacerbating his condition. It is not the right place for him. It was never the right place," she said.

Autism advocate Wendy Duff, part of a group working with Ashley's family, said it was one of the worst cases she had seen.

"He didn't commit a murder. And you wouldn't have done that even with a murderer. You wouldn't do it to a dog."

Capital & Coast spokesman Nigel Fairley disputed the case was a breach of human rights.

He said in cases such as Ashley's there was always tension between protecting and upholding the rights of the individual, and the rights of members of the community to protection and safety."

Dr Fairley said funding discussions were continuing with the Ministry of Health. He refused to answer further questions about Ashley, citing privacy concerns even when offered a waiver.

The health board refused to release a Crimes of Torture Act report on Tawhirimatea in time for this story.

- NZ Herald

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