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

Seclusion expert to investigate detention in New Zealand

The Human Rights Commission will bring an international expert to New Zealand to investigate the country's use of seclusion after repeatedly raising concerns about the practice.

It comes after the Herald revealed how autistic man, Ashley Peacock, had been kept in seclusion for five years at a mental health facility in Porirua despite concerns it breached human rights.

Torture inspectors from the Ombudsman's office have reported on at least five others in long-term seclusion in recent years, and today said there were likely an unknown number in private facilities elsewhere.

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Disability Rights Commissioner Paul Gibson said the Human Rights Commission would lead a review into seclusion and restraint practices in New Zealand with funding from the United Nations.

"The Human Rights Commission and other organisations have repeatedly raised concerns about the way Government agencies detain some New Zealanders and keep them in solitary confinement or seclusion," Mr Gibson said.

"The case of Ashley Peacock - locked away in seclusion for more than 23 hours a day - is tragic and shocking. Humanely meeting the needs of detained individuals, including those who have complex mental health and psycho-social conditions, is a key area of concern in New Zealand."

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has provided the Commission with funding to investigate seclusion and restraint practices in New Zealand.

This will assist the Commission to follow up on recommendations made in 2013 by the United Nations Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture, which also raised concerns about the use of seclusion here.

The Commission was engaging an international expert in seclusion practices who will be assisting the Commission with this important project.

Yesterday, calls mounted for an end to Mr Peacock's seclusion and transfer to a placement in the community where he could have specialised care.

Politicians called for him to be released, but the health minister refused to intervene.

Ashley Peacock. Photo / Supplied
Ashley Peacock. Photo / Supplied

This morning, more cases were revealed.

Documents show at least one other case exists at the same site - in a different mental health unit, Haumiatiketike - where an intellectually disabled man has been under a seclusion order for at least two years. The health board refused to elaborate on his case due to "privacy issues".

Over the past five years, inspectors have noted about five long-term seclusion cases in mental health facilities. But they say a "substantial number" of areas are not monitored, including community-based homes for the disabled, aged-care units and other compulsory care facilities.

Chief Crimes of Torture Act inspector Jacki Jones said they had come across several long-term cases where people lived in seclusion rooms - usually with just a mattress and scant personal items.

"It's not an acceptable situation for anyone to be living in, not just Ashley.

"Seclusion is considered a short-term intervention and should never be used as a long-term solution to house patients considered high risk, or high needs."

Ms Jones said her office did not have the resources to look at private detention facilities such as dementia units, so did not know exactly how many cases there were.

"Those people are part of a vulnerable group who are more likely to be subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment."

Discussions were ongoing about how to extend monitoring to private environments.

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Disability Commissioner Paul Gibson said worse cases than Mr Peacock's were likely, because many disabled people did not have anyone to advocate for them and were unable to do it themselves.

"They are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. It is much harder for them to get out of the system than anyone else," he said.

Mr Gibson said the law needed to change around the way disabled people were deprived of liberty, as it was too difficult to challenge decisions made by clinicians.

The Human Rights Commission is investigating seclusion and restraint practices in New Zealand with funding from its international body, secured after an international torture body visited and also noted concerns.

Previously, the Ombudsman has suggested to the Ministry of Health it build some secure, individualised units for patients with high and complex needs considered candidates for seclusion. They have not been built.

Director of Mental Health Dr John Crawshaw said there was individual funding available for such cases. He said seclusion rates had dropped by 32 per cent since 2009, with 736 people spending time in seclusion last year.

Mr Peacock, 37, has spent five years in seclusion, half of that time in a 10sq m room. He loves nature and a review says being locked up may be contributing to his aggression.

Yesterday, the Labour Party and the Greens added their voices to the chorus of experts calling for him to be transitioned to a community setting, as recommended by a review. They asked the minister intervene to ensure it happened urgently.

Associate Health Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga said he would not issue a directive.

"I've been given reassurances that [the health board] are working closely with the family, on a solution," he said.

Mr Peacock's family have approached media concerned a remedy for his situation was taking too long.

- NZ Herald

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