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

'Cruel, inhuman': Ombudsman's report on Ashley Peacock's living conditions

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

The Chief Ombudsman has labelled the living situation of autistic man Ashley Peacock as cruel, inhuman or degrading, prompting fresh calls for him to be removed from near-permanent seclusion.

Ashley has been kept in a tiny wing of a mental health unit at Porirua for five years, allowed outside for an average 90 minutes a day.

He sleeps in a 10m-square room with just a mattress and a urine bottle, and when staff order it, can be locked in for long periods - despite repeated warnings from multiple agencies that his condition is deteriorating, and his treatment breaches human rights.

Ashley, who is not a criminal, but has an intellectual disability and a schizophrenic illness, is subject to a "watching brief" from the Ombudsman's torture inspectors, who report intermittently on his case.

The Herald had been fighting to obtain a copy of the inspectors' most recent Crimes of Torture Act (COTA) report on the unit he lives in, named Tawhirimatea, since May.

The Capital & Coast District Health Board released a copy tonight, including comments from Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier about Ashley's situation.

"I consider this client's living situation to be cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment for the purpose of the Convention Against Torture," Judge Boshier said.

"While significant work is still going on behind the scenes to secure accommodation in the community for this client, the process has been excruciatingly slow. Now into his sixth year of living in a seclusion room, this situation needs to be resolved without any further delay."

An example of a seclusion room at a government run mental health facility . Ashley Peacock has been held in a room similar to this for years. Photo / Supplied
An example of a seclusion room at a government run mental health facility . Ashley Peacock has been held in a room similar to this for years. Photo / Supplied

Judge Boshier also found the seclusion register and some seclusion records were incomplete, and recommended both situations be urgently addressed.

Seclusion, where a person is locked in a room or area, must meet strict regulations in New Zealand, and is subject to a reduction policy. It should only be used as a last resort.

The documents show the torture report was initially accepted by CCDHB, but after the Herald raised the issue, it asked to provide extra feedback.

General manager of mental health, addictions and disability services, Nigel Fairley, also issued a press release about the clarifications.

Mr Fairley said comments such as "living in a seclusion room" implied Ashley was permanently secluded, which was not true.

Ashley had some of the "highest and most complex needs" and had issues with unpredictable violence. He said sometimes Ashley left the unit for up to three hours at a time.

"This situation is not ideal for the client, other residents or staff," Mr Fairley said. "We are hopeful a solution may soon be found for this client."

Judge Boshier's comments come as another Ombudsman, Ron Paterson, concluded his separate investigation into Ashley's treatment.

Photos from a family album of Ashley Peacock, who has been kept locked up in Porirua's Regional Rehabilitation Unit Tawhirimatea for over 10 years.
Photos from a family album of Ashley Peacock, who has been kept locked up in Porirua's Regional Rehabilitation Unit Tawhirimatea for over 10 years.

He found Ashley should be transitioned to community placement "directly" - a view in line with a March report to the National Intellectual Disability Agency.

Mr Paterson agreed with the parents' perspective that the parties providing assistance to Ashley, particularly CCDHB, have on many occasions been laboured in their efforts to find alternative suitable accommodation for him.

"While I consider that procuring suitable accommodation for Ashley remains a complex matter, which will require a number of committed and qualified specialists, I believe that during the initial stages of my investigation there was a lack of collaboration, and insufficient resources available, to make real progress."

Ashley's parents said they hoped it would push the health board to move Ashley to a community setting without delay.

"I feel like at last someone is believing what we are telling them," Ashley's mum Marlena Peacock said. "It is great to hear such strong words from the Chief Ombudsman."

Green Party health spokesman Kevin Hague, who has been advocating for Ashley to be transitioned from the centre, said the message to health authorities was cut and dry.

"It's an absolute condemnation from the most authoritative source in New Zealand," he said. "I think the health board's performance has been utterly woeful. The minister can, and should intervene."

To say it was "too complicated" went against advice from all independent bodies, including the Human Rights Commission, he said.

Associate health minister Sam Lotu-Iiga said the safety of Ashley and others was paramount. "I have had reassurances from the Director of Mental Health that he is being cared for in the best way possible."

The story so far

• Autistic man Ashley Peacock is held in an isolated wing of a mental health unit for five years, allowed just 90 minutes a day outside.

• The Ombudsman and Human Rights Commission consider his case one of prolonged seclusion, a practice subject to a reduction policy in New Zealand.

• His family say they want their son out. A review document agrees, saying he should be transitioned to a community setting as soon as possible.

• Opposition politicians call for Health Minister Jonathan Coleman to intervene. Dr Coleman passes responsibility for the case to Associate Health Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga, who defends Ashley's treatment.

• The Human Rights Commission announces it will bring an international expert to New Zealand to investigate seclusion practices.

• The Ombudsman releases new investigation into Ashley's treatment, including a statement from Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier that his living situation amounts to "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment".

- NZ Herald

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