The Children’s Commissioner responds to a UN committee’s decision about the torture of children at Lake Alice. David Williams reports

Pressure is building on a police review of their file into Lake Alice psychiatrist Selwyn Leeks.

The review was prompted by a landmark decision by the United Nations Committee against Torture, which demanded a prompt, impartial and independent investigation into allegations of abuse and torture at the notorious state psychiatric hospital, near Whanganui, in the 1970s. Leeks was the psychiatrist in charge of the child and adolescent unit.

The abuse claims aren’t contested by New Zealand authorities, but the UN committee says they haven’t been properly investigated. Police closed their investigation into Leeks in 2010, despite finding evidence of the application of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), and interviewing only one of the 41 people who had filed criminal complaints.

Commissioner Andrew Becroft says further investigation into the abusive practices at Lake Alice is “clearly required”.

“It is encouraging the police are reviewing this,” he says in an emailed statement to Newsroom. “In my view, we need a clear ruling as to whether the practices at the time constituted criminal offences and whether the delay in bringing these charges prevents a fair trial. In principle, the abuse and neglect of children and young people should never be allowed to go unanswered.”

Paul Zentveld, the Auckland fishing skipper whose complaint prompted the UN committee decision, notes the decision itself called for further investigation. “When is someone going to let the public know the truth?”

Meanwhile, Lake Alice survivor Malcolm Richards, of Hastings, says of Becroft’s comments: “It’s about time.”

Richards says he’s previously asked for help from several independent bodies, such as the offices of the Children’s Commissioner, the Health and Disability Commissioner, and the Ombudsman. “I get sent round in bloody circles, from one to the other to the other and back again. And I get no action, no answers, no nothing. So it’s about time one of them has said something.”

It’s understood the police want to wrap up their file review by the end of the month – and that its investigation into sexual assault allegations at Lake Alice has been suspended in the meantime.

The government has to respond to the UN committee decision next month.

“Lake Alice remains a damning indictment on New Zealand’s past care and protection practices.” – Andrew Becroft

New Zealand’s defence – a submission prepared by Crown Law, with input by police – to Zentveld’s complaint said there had been several police investigations into allegations at Lake Alice. Senior members of the police decided not to prosecute Leeks because of a “lack of sufficient evidence and a determination that the public interest did not merit prosecution”.

“Moreover, given the length of time which has elapsed since the acts which constitute alleged torture and the resulting unavailability of witnesses, there is a real prospect that Dr Leeks’ right to a fair trial and the rights of any former staff members would be infringed if there was to be a criminal prosecution now.”

That didn’t wash with the UN committee.

Its decision, released in December, said it was concerned “that despite repeated investigations into the same matter, police acknowledgement of ‘evidence of the application’ and the state party’s acknowledgement before the committee of the seriousness of historic complaints of torture, while admitting the continuing public interest in the matter, the authorities of the state party made no consistent efforts to establish the facts of such a sensitive historical issue involving the abuse of children in state care”.

Becroft, the Children’s Commissioner, says the independent international investigation has “shone another strong and deeply disturbing searchlight on the historical practices at Lake Alice”.

“Clearly, too many children, families, and whānau have been profoundly let down by a state system that should have been supporting them. Lake Alice remains a damning indictment on New Zealand’s past care and protection practices.”

Inquiry can’t bring criminal prosecutions

The Royal Commission of inquiry into abuse in care is already investigating abuse at Lake Alice. But as the UN committee points out, it can’t bring criminal prosecutions. Its work isn’t expected to finish until 2023.

Becroft says he’s looking forward to the commission’s recommendations.

“I hope the UN report and the Royal Commission of inquiry will help to ensure those children and young people who remain in state care, particularly Māori (given their unacceptably disproportionate involvement in the system), can be absolutely free from abuse and neglect.”

Last month, Becroft released figures showing Māori babies are five times more likely to end up in state care than non-Māori.

Also, the rate of urgent entries into state care has doubled since 2010. Becroft said at the time the figures raised questions about racism and bias within the state care sector.

Last year, Newsroom reported an attempt by the children’s ministry, Oranga Tamariki, to take a one week-old boy from his teenage mother at Hawke’s Bay Hospital. The stories by investigative reporter Melanie Reid sparked four inquiries, including one by Becroft, plus an urgent Waitangi Tribunal case.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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