The police have re-opened the 36-year-old case of a boy's death at Kingseat psychiatric hospital south of Auckland, after a witness said a nurse beat the youngster.

A 1968 coroner's finding that 11-year-old Clement Matthews died of pneumonia has been challenged by former patient Stephen Lindsay, who was 14 at the time.

He says he saw a male nurse attack Clement 12 hours before he was found dying in his locked room.


A hospital report said Clement had been admitted three years earlier because of "mental subnormality" that resulted in disturbed and aggressive behaviour.

A pathologist found no marks of external violence.

Mr Lindsay's lawyer, Sonja Cooper, last night welcomed the police re-opening the investigation of Clement's death, which she had requested.

"For my client, that's something that's traumatised him for the last 30 years. It's given him nightmares.

"I think for him to have some closure on that it's really important."

Mr Lindsay is among nearly 200 former patients who have lodged complaints with lawyers alleging mistreatment in the 1960s and 1970s.

The claims, which initially focused on Porirua Hospital, have now broadened to most of New Zealand's former asylums, including Oakley, Kingseat and Tokanui Hospitals.

Two Wellington doctors last year cast doubt on the coroner's finding into Clement Matthews' death in light of Mr Lindsay's evidence.

Mr Lindsay said a male nurse grabbed Clement's shirt collar and pulled him to the ground after the boy had snatched a piece of bread from a plate while they were waiting for dinner.

"Clem hit the floor with a hell of a thud. The nurse then kicked him hard in his back and I heard something snap."

Clement lay sobbing on the floor and would not get up. Nurses eventually dragged him upstairs, threw him face-down on his mattress and locked the door.

When the day-nurse opened the door next morning, Mr Lindsay went close to Clement and heard that he was hardly breathing.

He had thought about telling someone what happened, but thought no one would believe him.

Counties Manukau police spokeswoman Angeline Barlow said yesterday that the case had been re-opened. She did not know when the investigation would be completed.

"Since it was in 1968, it takes a while to track down people."

News of police re-opening the case came to light during Weekend Herald inquiries into the widening allegations of abuse at psychiatric hospitals.

Wellington lawyers Sonja Cooper and Roger Chapman are representing nearly 200 former patients, most of whom were aged between 8 and 16 at the time of the alleged abuse.

More than 100 were at Porirua Hospital.

About 15 complaints relate to Oakley, Kingseat and Tokanui and some also to Lake Alice hospital near Wanganui, which closed in 1999.

"We've got a number of our Porirua clients who ended up in Oakley when [it was] quite a brutal physical environment from the sounds of it," Ms Cooper said.

Other allegation relate to the Cherry Farm and Seacliff hospitals north of Dunedin.

The lawyers have filed nearly 70 cases in the High Court, seeking compensation of up to $500,000 and exemplary damages approaching $50,000 for each former patient. Another 40 claims are nearly ready to be filed.

The Government is considering holding an inquiry, but says it will not decide until it has investigated all the court claims.

The complainants are separate from those of 95 former Lake Alice child patients who received a $6.5 million Government payment and an apology in 2001 after claiming they were tortured and sexually abused at the hospital in the 1970s.

The most serious allegations in the new claims are of sexual assault and beatings by staff and patients.

Ms Cooper said patients also told of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT, or "shock treatment") and drug injections used as a punishment, being over-sedated and being locked in seclusion - sometimes in straitjackets - for long periods.

Mr Chapman said some of the patients had conditions such as attention deficit disorder.

"Sometimes they were placed in psychiatric institutions by their parents or families or authorities where they were state wards, not necessarily because they were thought to be mentally ill, but because they were difficult to deal with and people couldn't handle them.

"Some were never mentally ill and should not have been in a psychiatric hospital.

"It's hard to think of anybody who has come through this unscathed. The abuse that some of them have been through has almost certainly wrecked their lives ...

"A lot of them are extremely dysfunctional and find life a constant struggle. We have people who have repeatedly tried to kill themselves."

Mr Chapman acknowledged that many mental patients received good care.

"I wouldn't want to suggest that beating patients up or sexually abusing them was standard treatment in psychiatric hospitals 30 or 40 years ago. I think, however, that there were some hospitals at least where that kind of abuse was quite extensive."

Kingseat Hospital in South Auckland closed in 1999 and Tokanui Hospital near Te Awamutu in 1998.

In 1987, Oakley merged with its Auckland neighbour Carrington Hospital, which closed in 1993.

A psychiatrist, Emeritus Professor John Werry, said last night that cruelty and sexual abuse were never tolerated at psychiatric hospitals and he never witnessed them.

But psychiatry had leaped forward "at least 1000 per cent" in New Zealand since the early 1960s when mental hospitals had slum-like accommodation and few psychiatrists and treatments.

Excessive reliance was placed on ECT and brain surgery.

Auckland mental health nurse Jim Ferguson, who worked at Oakley-Carrington for about 15 years off and on from 1973, said he had never seen abuse of the sort described by the complainants, "but it would not be beyond belief".

He knew of four patients being hit by staff, but did not see it happen. He did not know of staff sexually abusing patients, although some patients were thought to be having sex with one another.

He said nurses relied on "ward heavies" - big, assertive patients - to help keep order, but patients were less violent then than now.

The hospitals

* Oakley/Carrington Hospital

Built in the 1850s as the Whau Lunatic Asylum in Pt Chevalier, Auckland, and underwent several name changes.

Oakley became the male forensic unit, dogged by controversy.

The merged hospital had 600 beds. It closed in 1993.

* Kingseat Hospital

At Karaka, south of Auckland.

Opened in 1932. Closed in 1999

* Tokanui Hospital

Near Te Awamutu.

Opened in 1912 and closed in 1998.