'Hellhole, worse than prison': Kiwis should be ashamed of sick, sadistic treatment of disabled people, says IHC


By Jonty Dine of RNZ

Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of institutional physical, mental and sexual abuse.

After eight days of harrowing testimonies the Royal Commission of Inquiry into disability, deaf, and mental health institutional care has concluded.

Survivors bravely spoke about the physical, sexual, emotional and medical abuse suffered while in state care at the Kimberley Centre in Levin, Templeton Centre, near Christchurch, Porirua Hospital, Tokanui Hospital, near Te Awamutu, Kelston Deaf Education Centre in Auckland, Homai School, Carrington, Kingseat and Māngere Hospitals in Auckland.

They have described the hell they endured at the hands of "evil" staff members from disabled children being raped, patients being over-medicated and a level of dehumanisation akin to concentration camps.

There were forced sterilisations, beatings, medical incompetence causing death, and total emotional, cultural and educational neglect.

The commission heard how disabled people in state care were deprived of their humanity and dignity for decades.

The victims

Alison Pascoe, now 80, was committed to psychiatric institutions in Auckland from the age of 8 to 48. The abuse Pascoe suffered impacts her to this day, with one nurse particularly sadistic in her treatment.

"She tried to make me eat my own faeces, drink my own urine, that's not normal in a job like that is it?"

As with many other survivors, Pascoe spoke about the need for accountability and change. "I could never forgive them and never forget what happened."

Tony Ryder said he witnessed what he called the murder of a patient at the hands of staff at Templeton Hospital.

"He smacked him down to the ground and jabbed a safety pin in his butt lots and lots of times, he [the patient] went to bed and ended up dying."

Ryder said he was punished by being forced to sit in an electric chair, locked in a basement, hit with a walking stick and called "retarded, queer and spastic". At another institution, Ryder was 14 when a member of staff tied him to the bed and raped him.

He was also molested while at Templeton by a man who said he would kill Ryder if he ever spoke of it. Many of the offenders have since died and Ryder said he wished he had the chance to confront them.

One man said he was forced to witness the rape of girls as young as 10 while in state care at the Kimberley Centre in Levin.

He said nurses were paid by local men to offer the young disabled girls, none of whom could speak or communicate properly. The man recalled the staff laughing as the young girls, in restraints, screamed. The survivor was forced to watch and participate.

After running away with other victims, the group were picked up by Palmerston North police, who were informed of the abuse - but the children's pleas were ignored. "They did not care, they did not listen. They were not interested."

Matthew Whiting broke down as he recalled the abuse he suffered in state care.

Diagnosed with cerebral palsy, he was just 4 years old when he went to Templeton Hospital. Here, the young man witnessed two patients performing oral sex on each other and was threatened with death if he told anyone.

He was then sent to Burwood in Christchurch which he said had the same hierarchal system as prison - "there were just no bars."

One time when Whiting refused to eat, he said a nurse forced the food down his throat. At 15, he was molested by a female nurse and often forced to go places in his wheelchair that he did not want to go.

"It was the absolute powerlessness that really affected me."

Sidney Neilson was at Porirua Hospital between the ages of 19 and 42 and was given shock treatment every day without consent from him or his whānau. "It was hell, it was worse than prison."

He was exposed to terrifying levels of violence, once witnessing patients fighting and once being stabbed in the eye.

Ross Clark was vision impaired as a child and spent 16 years at Kimberley. Clark, now 84, was subjected to a horrific act of violence from a fellow patient who inserted a hose deep inside his bottom.

Staff dismissed his complaints of pain but Clark was later admitted to hospital where it was discovered a piece of metal had broken off inside him and was causing severe infection.

Clark was also force fed porridge with soap powder after complaining about the dead flies in his food. Any gifts sent to him from home were stolen by staff who would then taunt him with the wrapping paper.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into disability, deaf, and mental health institutional care has heard eight days of harrowing testimonies. Photo / RNZ
The Royal Commission of Inquiry into disability, deaf, and mental health institutional care has heard eight days of harrowing testimonies. Photo / RNZ

Peter Keoghan uses a wheelchair and does not have the use of his hands.

He lived at Tokanui Hospital for two decades where he said he was treated like a prisoner. Given no therapy for his disability, Keoghan said he was consistently threatened by staff.

"He [a staff member] would say nasty things like, 'you're going to die.'"

Keoghan was viciously beaten by staff and sexually abused by patients. While still a boy, one of his friends drowned in the hospital's pool as no one was watching her. Keoghan attempted to save her but she died in his arms.

Jonathan Mosen was born vision impaired and attended Homai College for the Blind in South Auckland.

He said several of his classmates died while at school due to cancer of the retina but no support was offered for him while grieving. Mosen was also chastised for using echoing to navigate his way around.

"That really interfered with my cultural identity. I think the teachers thought it was some sort of weird blindism that should not be used." He said many blind children were not given sufficient access to true literacy.

Donna Phillips spent 30 years in the mental health system where, despite her making it known, she was forced to spend time with the man who sexually assaulted her.

"I was left locked with the perpetrator for two weeks in the secure unit, I couldn't get out."

Overmedication led to horrendous nightmares and staff would watch her shower. "It felt so uncomfortable, like an ambush."

Sarah (Sunny) Webster was only 8 years old when she was sexually abused which led to years of depression and disconnection.

Webster became pregnant and got an abortion she did not consent to following another rape at Tokanui. She said many women at the hospital were sterilised because pregnancy from rape was so common.

"Sexual abuse was a normal part of life but there is no way to view the sexual activity there as normal."

She lives with post traumatic stress disorder as a result of her time in institutional care. Webster said the system failed her and had authorities made the connection between her early childhood abuse and her depression, she could have avoided years of mistreatment.

"I was misdiagnosed for 16 years and no one cared. I went through hell, it wrecked me as a person."

Systemic racism and structural oppression

Racism and cultural oppression were also systemic in state care.

Samoan woman Lusi Faiva has cerebral palsy and told the inquiry that it was assumed she had an intellectual disability and no-one bothered to try to talk to her.

"We sat in the recreation room but there were no activities going on. We hardly interacted with each other."

She said the place felt dark and cold.

"There were no tools or strategies offered to me to communicate with people around me so I could express what I wanted and needed."

Faiva said institutions still operated with a lack of respect for freedom of choice.

Whiti Ronaki lost his hearing at 3 years old after a bout of meningococcal disease and subsequently attended Kelston School for the Deaf. He said children who tried communicating in sign language got the strap.

"It wasn't fair that we weren't allowed to use it."

Ronaki was forced to bathe with up to four other boys where he said "rude touching" occurred and a man would put his hands up their bottoms.

While Pākehā students were given toothpaste, Māori students like Ronaki were forced to brush with soap. "Some staff didn't like Māori and didn't treat us the same as the Pākehā children."

There was no te reo taught and Ronaki didn't even know he was Māori. "I was confused about my identity."

It was this lack of cultural connection which ultimately led Ronaki to gang life.

The whānau

Margaret Priest was the first of 23 survivors or their whānau to speak at the public hearing.

Speaking on behalf of her sister Irene, she said she was drugged in care, had all her teeth pulled out and became underweight, suffered numerous physical injuries and restraints that were documented.

"I know she was abused in many ways. I also know she would have been abused in ways I did not know. Medical staff knew of the abuse, this did not stop the abuse."

Asked to describe Kimberley Centre, Priest said: "It was just one word, hellhole." "She lost around 20 years of her life, there was no quality of life for her at that time."

Catherine Hickey spoke to the commission representing her brother, Paul.

Paul was hit by a truck at 6 years old and as a result had a serious head injury and was paralysed on one side of his body. After an assessment, Paul was made a ward of the state and committed to hospital when he was 15.

Hickey read a letter to the commission that her brother had sent her in 1976. It read: "I don't want to upset you, but the staff do terrible things to me. I don't want to go for a shower anymore because I can't protect myself and can't tell you what they do."

Another letter submitted as evidence was from a medical professional who stated that Paul would be better off dead.

Just one year later, Paul took his own life. "His abusers were protected by the state. Despite our complaints, his torture continued."

Kingseat Hospital in Karaka.
Kingseat Hospital in Karaka.

David Newman said that his brother was regularly beaten and given enough medication to tranquillise a horse.

Newman said the mischievous little boy who went into care was not the aggressive and easily agitated man that came out. Bruising was also regularly found on his body, which was consistent with being manhandled.

"That bruising also extended to his genital area as well; there was other stuff going on."

Another incident saw Newman's brother go through either a plate glass window or door. Newman said the abuse his brother suffered had long lasting impacts on his family and his brother became a product of institutionalisation, he said.

From a curious little boy who would follow his brother around, Newman said he became violent, would bang his head until it bled or pull off his own toenails.

Alison Adams gave evidence on behalf of her sons - Malcolm who has autism, epilepsy and Parkinson's, and Nigel, who is intellectually disabled. During their time at Templeton, the boys became "zombies" due to overmedication.

She recalled seeing one of her sons unable to walk and lying in his own urine. He was also savagely beaten.

"We went to get Malcolm on his birthday and his head was covered in stitches, he had two black eyes, and a broken tooth."

The attack led to Malcolm suffering lifelong seizures. No explanation was given and the injuries were not investigated.

Two weeks later, another resident was killed after getting a broom handle shoved up his bottom.

Nigel would come home with scars consistent with cigarette burns and also had part of his ear bitten off by another resident. He also required shoulder surgery due to multiple dislocations caused by rough treatment by staff.

"The boys were preyed on."

Due to changes in their behaviour Adams believes her boys were also sexually abused at Templeton.

The workers

Dr Olive Webb worked at Sunnyside Hospital for 28 years.

"None of the staff were adequately trained. They did not really know how to care for people, they only knew how to control them."

She said concentration camps come to mind when describing the treatment of patients. Dr Webb said men were herded into a room together where days were timeless.

"And there they sat and did nothing. It was a complete removal of thinking, creativity, dignity and independence."

IHC worker Allison Campbell said women with learning disabilities at Lake Alice were given forced hysterectomies. She said this was done so that staff did not have to "deal with the girls' menstruations".

Campbell said that New Zealanders should be ashamed.

"They look down on people; they felt that they were subnormal and they were certainly treated like animals. And if animals had been treated that way, they would have been charged."

Overgrown paths at Lake Alice Hospital. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Overgrown paths at Lake Alice Hospital. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Sheree Briggs worked at Māngere Hospital and St John's Home and says all forms of "behaviour modification" involved abuse.

Briggs said aversion therapy included being sprayed with a firehose, given ammonia capsules and electric shock treatment. Children had their teeth pulled out if they were deemed to be biting too much.

The medical neglect was so extreme she recalled one patient dying of a stomach ulcer due to no intervention. She said parents were also discouraged from maintaining a relationship with their children, some of whom were still toddlers.

Support worker Paul Milner said general depersonalisation was common. He also experienced what was known as the "Kimberley Cringe".

This was the term used to refer to the reaction of Kimberley residents when approached by people in that they would almost always cower. One of its residents was able to drive a tractor prior to going into care but after his time there the man became completely mute.

"Imagine the deprivations that would make you lose your language. That language had no use to you in an institution. I struggle to imagine that."

Caroline Arrell spent time at Tokanui and Kimberley and was ostracised for speaking out against the abuse. She made a shocking discovery at Tokanui while out riding her horse, 500 unmarked graves of disabled people who lived at the hospital.

"I've wondered how it must have felt to know that there was a high likelihood that you might end up in an unmarked grave if you had no family involvement."

Arrell said the food was abhorrent and resembled cow pats. Children were given "positive punishment" which saw them locked in a room for giving wrong answers in class.

Patients were ignored when self harming, restrained, and left for hours in the sun sitting in their own waste. She recalled staff saying "leave him in sh** till the next shift."

What next?

Caroline Arrell said a Ministry of Vulnerable Adults needed to be established to provide case managers, monitoring and a person centred approach.

Allison Campbell agreed and said anyone who lived in care needed an advocate who was not from a government department.

"It needs to be an individual that really cares about that person."

Mike Ferris of the Citizens Commission for Human Rights said the exposure was just a glimpse into decades of abuse. "It has been a long time coming."

Ferris said we could not mitigate the responsibility on those who perpetuated the abuse. "They were powerless to challenge the abusive practices."

He said our record of mental health care was cruel and degrading. "A number of family members objected to the treatments but were ignored."

Ferris said a holistic rather than biomedical approach was needed.

Counsel assist Ruth Thomas, who is leading the abuse in care disability, deaf, and mental health institutional care hearing, commended all survivors for their testimonies and welcomed any more survivors who wanted to come forward and share their experience.

Those wishing to do so can find out how here.

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633 or text 234 (available 24/7)
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (12pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 or text 4202 (available 24/7)

Sexual harm - Where to get help

• If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone call the confidential crisis helpline Safe to Talk on 0800 044 334 or text 4334. (available 24/7)
Male Survivors Aotearoa offers a range of confidential support at centres across New Zealand - find your closest one here.
Mosaic - Tiaki Tangata: 0800 94 22 94 (available 11am-8pm)
• Alternatively contact your local police station - click here for a list.
If you have been abused, remember it's not your fault.