Ex-Lake Alice chief psychiatrist flew from Australia for secret mediation meeting. David Williams reports

Crown lawyers were instrumental in organising – and hushing up – a meeting to settle a $1.5 million lawsuit which involved the secret return to New Zealand of the former head psychiatrist of a notorious children’s mental hospital.

In the 1970s, Dr Selwyn Leeks ran the Lake Alice child and adolescent unit, near Whanganui. Youngsters, many of them misdiagnosed and sent there wrongly, were routinely punished for minor infractions with electric shocks, without anaesthetic or muscle relaxants. After the practice was exposed, the unit was shut down and Leeks left for Australia.

Lake Alice is one of this country’s darkest chapters of child abuse in state care.

No one has ever been charged with criminal behaviour at Lake Alice, despite uncontested evidence of the abuse and torture of children. Last year, a United Nations committee found successive governments had violated the UN Convention against Torture for not properly investigating dozens of claims and holding anyone to account.

Yesterday, at an Abuse in Care Royal Commission hearing in Auckland, it was revealed Leeks secretly flew back to New Zealand in 1998, with the tacit knowledge and involvement of Crown lawyers, to try and settle a High Court claim by Auckland woman Leoni McInroe and another Lake Alice survivor. McInroe took civil action against the Crown and Leeks in 1994 over abuse at Lake Alice, seeking damages of $1.5 million.

Four years later, as the mediation meeting approached, McInroe was sworn to secrecy.

A letter from Crown Law’s Ian Carter, written to McInroe’s lawyer Philippa Cunningham, said it would “not be productive” for the mediation to become the subject of publicity “whether focused on Dr Leeks or otherwise”. “The mediation can only be held on the basis that the fact, time and place of the mediation will remain confidential.”

Carter’s letter, disclosed at yesterday’s hearing, said child advocate group Citizens Commission for Human Rights tried to tip off then Health Minister Bill English that Leeks was returning to the country, and asked “whether the Minister was intending to take any action”.

It’s not clear if the message got through.

Former prime minister English, who was since been knighted, told Newsroom he doesn’t comment publicly on anything. Newsroom asked Carter, who no longer works for Crown Law, given what Leeks was accused of why did the Crown allow Leeks back into the country without arranging a police interview. The barrister, who lists the McInroe v Leeks case on his website, referred our query to Crown Law.

Mike Ferriss, the New Zealand director of Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a group aligned with the Church of Scientology, didn’t know until yesterday Leeks had attended the 1998 meeting. It was his predecessor, Steve Green, who tried to warn English. “Nothing came of it and that’s the point,” Ferriss says.

McInroe revisited the darkest days of her life at the Royal Commission yesterday. She underlined her firm belief Leeks was protected by the Crown and the psychiatric profession. The Crown assumed the role of abuser and perpetrator, she said, despite having evidence Leeks gave her drugs and electric shock treatment without justification.

“When I filed my claim, instead of compassion, justice, validation and an apology, I received nine gruelling years of emotional battering, abuse and bullying from the Crown,” she said.

“There were ongoing, prolonged, intentional delays, obstruction tactics and obstruction strategies and it felt like the Crown were treating me with the callous indifference and cruelty that Dr Leeks had. Only worse. It was worse because I expected fairness and justice from the Crown.”

Leeks has always denied wrongdoing, and, in his statement of defence to the High Court, denied all McInroe’s allegations.

“I felt just as intimidated and vulnerable as I had experienced being in Lake Alice.” – Leonie McInroe

McInroe, an anaesthetic technician with four children, gave evidence in a two-week block of witnesses who sought redress for abuse suffered in state care. Courageously, she chose to be named and identified.

In the 1970s, while a teenager, she spent a total of 18 months, in two stints, at Lake Alice. There she suffered electro convulsive therapy, known as ECT, received painful injections of anti-psychotic drugs, was subjected to long periods of seclusion, and was assaulted by a disturbed adult patient.

Her 1994 High Court claim, which survived a strike-out attempt by lawyers for the Crown and Leeks the following year, claimed damages for, among other things, unlawful admission, emotional harm and loss of enjoyment, and the resultant loss of education and career.

Leading up to the 1998 mediation, held at Auckland’s swanky Northern Club, McInroe had vomiting and diarrhoea due to post-traumatic stress disorder. She hadn’t been face-to-face with Leeks for 21 years. “I was absolutely petrified of being in the same room with Dr Leeks again.”

The mediator seated the victims and their lawyers first. McInroe: “When Dr Leeks and his lawyer came in she put Dr Leeks directly opposite me. I felt incredibly traumatised by this. I wanted to vomit. My lawyers arranged for a change of seats.”

She was alarmed at the sheer number of Crown representatives, including Crown lawyers, the Director of Mental Health, and several officials from the Health Ministry, including a staff solicitor. “I felt just as intimidated and vulnerable as I had experienced being in Lake Alice.”

While McInroe signed a confidentiality agreement, she confirmed yesterday she was offered $15,000 at the mediation meeting to settle the case. The offer was rejected.

After the meeting, she thought the Crown officials would be swayed by the strong evidence – the “unbeatable and insurmountable” stories from survivors. Leeks, and the people who put him in power, would be exposed, she thought, and it criminal justice and fair compensation would follow.

But nothing happened. “Just silence. It felt like torture again.”

Leeks resumed his private practice in Victoria, Australia. The Crown tactics of delays continued. It would be five years before the matter was finally finished with.

Chair Judge Coral Shaw addresses yesterday’s hearing. Screenshot: Abuse in Care Royal Commission

The longer the case dragged on, the more the Crown “seemed to be fully defending Dr Leeks”, McInroe said.

“I found the Crown’s behaviour appalling and indefensible. I eventually came to believe the Crown behaved in a way described best as trickery.”

She felt like the young person at Lake Alice again: devalued, belittled, ignored, disregarded, humiliated, worthless and disrespected. “I was bewildered and afraid at how people who had been through so much could be treated so badly by the government that was meant to protect them.”

The Crown asked for her personal diaries in 1997 and kept them for six years – returning them peppered with yellow Post-it notes.

As the case stretched into 2001, seven years after papers were first filed, the Crown applied to the High Court for McInroe to undergo a psychiatric examination – despite multiple examinations having been previously undertaken through an Accident Compensation Corporation claim.

(That same year a report into Lake Alice by retired High Court judge Sir Rodney Gallen was released. He found ECT was constantly used at the child and adolescent unit, “unmodified” – without the use of anaesthesia or muscle relaxants – and as punishment. Gallen was satisfied “in the main the allegations which have been made are true”.)

McInroe’s 2001 examination occurred at Mason Clinic, a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. It rekindled memories of being back in Lake Alice, she said: “The trauma, the anxiety, the fear, the smell, the sounds, the keys and locks, and the powerlessness was overbearing and overwhelming.”

The assessing psychiatrist, Dr Phil Brinded, told her after the interview the Crown wanted to find out “if they would win” the case against her. Brinded said he believed McInroe completely and would tell the Crown it would not win.

McInroe: “I felt so validated having someone say they believed me and apologised to me, again for the location set by the Crown, and for the wrong that had happened to me in Lake Alice. I felt his apology was very genuine.”

Later that year, McInroe heard the Crown had – “sneakily and intentionally” – settled a class action law suit taken by Christchurch lawyer Grant Cameron on behalf of 95 former Lake Alice patients. The settlement was for “paltry, miniscule amounts” to, she felt, push her claim down. (The class action claimed Crown negligence, that there was no medical basis for ECT, and correct medical processes at Lake Alice weren’t followed.)

The demand for a physical exam was a “total sham”, McInroe told the commission yesterday. “I realised that making me be assessed again, and all the inexplicable delays, were intentional delaying tactics by the Crown to give them more time to settle with Grant Cameron’s clients first, so that the settlement bar would be set as low as possible.

“I was beyond disgusted. I felt truly violated by the Crown.”

Regrets at settling

McInroe signed a settlement agreement in 2002 – but now wishes she hadn’t, so Leeks would have to stand in a witness box and “answer for himself in public”.

Apologies were sent by the Crown and then Prime Minister Helen Clark. “Neither letter was a document I could point to, to show that I had been wrongly detained and wrongly treated.”

The final indignity was a letter written to McInroe’s lawyer by Crown counsel Grant Liddell in March 2003, nine months after the settlement agreement was signed.

It said, in full: “It was agreed, outside the terms of Ms McInroe’s settlement agreement with the Crown, that I would also write to you to convey to Ms McInroe our sincere apologies and regrets for avoidable delays in progressing her case.

“Please accept this letter as an expression of such regret. The time taken for some steps was longer than might in other circumstances have been needed. In particular, there was a delay in providing discovery. This should not have occurred. Please accept our apologies. We take this opportunity to wish Ms McInroe well now, and for the future.”

McInroe told the commission yesterday the letter was arrogant and appalling. “I don’t believe he ever thought someone else, other than myself, would ever see that.”

Lake Alice wasn’t the first abuse suffered by McInroe.

She talked of being forced by her foster mother to sleep on the lino floor with the dog in the washhouse because of her asthma-related coughing. Her foster mother also put her arm through a washing machine wringer and would prick her feet with darning needles while she slept. McInroe was chronically underfed, and, in the middle of the night, starving, she would wander the house looking for food.

After the trauma of Lake Alice, she entered her adult years with a chronic lack of confidence and a huge fear of authority.

It’s to her credit that, with the encouragement of her lawyers, Cunningham and Robert Chambers QC, she fought ACC for four years before it accepted her claim, and lodged her civil claim.

(ACC asked questions of Leeks in 1993 and he billed them for the answers, calling it “professional services”. He claimed he got permission for ECT from her foster parents and social worker, but McInroe said that’s untrue. Also, it was certainly not discussed with her and was administered as punishment.)

“He must be brought back to New Zealand and face his accusers. Only that will bring closure to me.” – Leonie McInroe

There have been many investigations of Leeks’ professional conduct.

In 2010, a police investigation into Lake Alice concluded there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him and too much time had passed. But this year, in response to the UN committee’s non-binding recommendations, police have started an initial investigation.

The psychiatrist, now aged in his 80s, has escaped potential sanction from his peers.

The New Zealand Medical Council didn’t investigate Leeks because he deregistered. In Australia, the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria investigated him for seven years, but it dropped formal proceedings on the eve of a hearing after he agreed to surrender his Australian medical licence. The County Court of Victoria subsequently ordered him to pay $A55,000 in damages to a former patient for sexual assault.

McInroe told the commission yesterday Leeks subjected her to “cruel and unlawful treatment” at Lake Alice. She’s disgusted and angered that he and his many staff “who happily carried out his instructions of abuse”, have never been brought to justice.

Leeks should be held accountable for the way he treated her and other vulnerable young people in his care, McInroe said. “He must be brought back to New Zealand and face his accusers. Only that will bring closure to me.”

Yesterday, McInroe called for fair and just compensation for all Lake Alice survivors, and “proper heartfelt public apologies” from the government. She wants the state care system changed to protect all vulnerable children.

Despite being made to feel dehumanised and degraded by the Crown during her court action, yesterday McInroe displayed humanity and mana in addressing the stigma and shame still being carried by the children of Lake Alice.

Her voice breaking, she said: “Today I refer to them as the children of Lake Alice, instead of victims or survivors. This is to remind us all that before we became survivors, we were children first. Children that were defenceless and left unprotected in the most horrible ways, and then left to navigate our lives as best we could. I would like to acknowledge all the children from Lake Alice who have courageously lived through the trauma and the consequences of our time spent there.

“It is my hope that the outcome of this inquiry is more than just another list of reports and recommendations that are shelved, left gathering dust, and overshadowed by still more reports. That the voices who have so bravely spoken to you, in whatever form, are honoured and respected and valued enough to make change.”

Commission chair Judge Coral Shaw said the cost to McInroe of revisiting her painful past was evident not just to commissioners, but to representatives of Crown Law Office in the room, and the public of New Zealand. “I want you to know that the pain and the difficulty that you have endured has not gone without notice.”

The Crown is expected to respond to witness statements in hearings next month. The commission will hold dedicated hearings into abuse at Lake Alice sometime next year.

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

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