The use of electric shocks and painful paraldehyde injections to punish children at Lake Alice Hospital in the 1970s amounted to torture, an inquiry has found.
The “horrific” abuse described in a Royal Commission report was “completely unjustified”, even by the standards of the time, Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti said today.
“It is a shameful episode in the history of care in New Zealand,” she said.
“They were subject to terrible abuse and neglect.”
The case study inquiry by the Abuse in Care Royal Commission into the Lake Alice Child and Adolescent Unit was presented to Parliament today.
It described a litany of abusive practices used at the psychiatric facility near Bulls, including electric shocks as punishment administered to various parts of the children’s bodies, including the head, torso, legs and genitals.
It said the anticonvulsant drug paraldehyde, which can be very painful when injected, was used for punishment.
The children and young people in the unit were subjected to physical and sexual abuse by staff and other patients.
“The report describes a litany of failings by state agencies,” Tinetti said.
“The patients suffered mistreatment by staff, and there were poor oversight and referral procedures. Further, a series of investigations into abuse at the unit have delivered unsatisfactory results for Lake Alice survivors.”
The committee’s 426-page report also outlined the misuse of solitary confinement, emotional and psychological abuse in the unit, and said the young people were exposed to “unreasonable” medical risks.
Survivors experienced “systemic racism, ableism and homophobia”, it said.
The commissioners said they accepted that the use of the electric shocks and paraldehyde as punishment met the definition of torture outlined to the commission by Solicitor-General Una Jagose.
Jagose told the commission that torture had three elements – the infliction of severe pain and suffering, by a person acting on behalf of the State, for the purpose of punishment.
She said she had no doubt or question that the first two elements had been met at the Government-run institution.
Jagose was reluctant to express a view as to whether the shocks and injections were used punitively, but the commission took the view that they had been used as punishment in the unit overseen by psychiatrist Selwyn Leeks.
“We agree with the Solicitor-General’s conclusions about the severe pain and suffering survivors experienced and Dr Leeks’ status as a public official,” the report said.
“We have already concluded the evidence is compelling that electric shocks were sometimes administered at Lake Alice as punishment, outside the bounds of any proper therapeutic approach.
“It follows that in the view of the inquiry those acts meet the definition of torture as outlined by the Solicitor-General.”
The report said the abuse in the unit harmed survivors’ physical and mental health, their psychological, emotional, cultural and spiritual well-being, and their educational and economic prospects.
“Many survivors turned to crime and were imprisoned,” the report said.
The harm to survivors had been handed down over generations.
The report found that three police investigations into the unit – one in 1977 and two during the 2000s – were flawed, as were responses by Crown agencies and medical professional bodies.
Following the fourth police investigation, charges have been laid against a former staff member. His trial is expected to take place in 2023.
Some information has been redacted from the report to avoid prejudicing that trial.
The case study report contained no recommendations, as the Royal Commission’s recommendations will be included in its final report, due in June 2023.
Dr Selwyn Leeks died in January this year, aged 92. Police said before then they had found enough evidence to charge him, but his health was too poor.
Lake Alice Hospital opened in 1950 and was shut down progressively during the 1990s. The Child and Adolescent Unit operated for some years during the 1970s.
The report said most children and young people were admitted to the unit for behavioural reasons rather than mental distress.
Those admitted through involvement with the previous Department of Social Welfare were disproportionately Māori.
The report found that the departments of Health and Social Welfare, and staff at the hospital, did not have proper processes in place to lawfully admit, treat and detain children and young people at the unit.