The former head psychiatrist of a notorious children’s hospital is warned of “adverse” findings. David Williams reports

Worn down by decades of delays, and made cynical by an unwillingness by authorities to properly investigate, Lake Alice survivor Malcolm Richards finds himself waiting once again.

Waiting for a Royal Commission report, and the result of a re-opened police investigation. But most of all he waits for justice for what happened to him at the notorious child and adolescent unit of a psychiatric hospital near Whanganui in the 1970s.

“The thing that takes everything out of you is how long this has been drawn out,” Richards says.

Yesterday, the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care released a minute relating to the unit’s lead psychiatrist, Dr Selwyn Leeks, a “core participant” of a special hearing into abuse at Lake Alice. (The unit was closed in 1978 and Leeks, who has always denied wrongdoing, left for Australia, where he continued to practice.)

The commission’s interim report on redress to victims and survivors – presented to the Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro last week – refers to a lawsuit brought by Lake Alice survivor Leoni McInroe in the 1990s, and a class action brought by another group of survivors in the 1990s and 2000s. “Some of the comments in the sections are adverse to Dr Leeks,” commission chair Coral Shaw says in yesterday’s minute.

As disclosed in June by Leeks’ government-funded lawyer, Melbourne-based Hayden Rattray, the 92-year-old has serious health issues and may have dementia.

Rattray suggested the cognitive decline meant there can’t be findings made against Leeks out of fairness and issues of natural justice. But Shaw said all reasonable steps had been taken to ensure he was aware of the proposed findings, and he has had an opportunity to respond, through his lawyer.

“The inquiry has taken into account all of Dr Leeks’ previous responses and explanations and has done all it can to ensure that Dr Leeks’ perspective is taken into account.”

In June, the commission heard from Lake Alice survivors, former staff, government officials past and present, and sifted through wads of official documents disclosed by various government agencies. That included police, which conducted investigations in the 1970s and 2000s. There’s also an active investigation now.

As yet, no one has been charged over the abuse at Lake Alice.

Lifelong, debilitating trauma

Richards, who lives in Hastings, told the Commission about the “lifelong, hideous effects” of his two months at Lake Alice in 1975.

“It turned a 15-year-old depressed boy in an unhappy home with a violent father into someone with lifelong, debilitating trauma, memory loss and huge difficulty retaining information,” he said in June.

At Lake Alice, he was given electric shocks on his head, legs, and penis as punishment, as well as painful injections of the sedative paraldehyde. While unconscious after electric shock “treatment”, Richards was raped.

He was one of many survivors to tell their stories to the Commission; stories punctuated by obstruction and obfuscation by authorities.

Major themes to emerge from the hearings were children, many of whom were state wards, being admitted under dubious circumstances, and given electric shocks without permission or the knowledge of their parents. They were retraumatised years later by government departments who fought their claims through the courts.

About 20 years ago, the government officially apologised and made payments to victims. However, question marks have been raised – not least of which by the United Nations Committee against Torture – about the quality of the police investigations, and the adequacy of redress and rehabilitation to victims.

Richards isn’t placing much weight on the Commission’s findings. “It’s yet to be seen how adverse – that can be from a bit of a naughty boy to absolute horrendous, outrageous treatment of children.”

The Lake Alice survivor notes how state agencies have helped Leeks before: by sneaking him in and out of the country for a mediation meeting with McInroe, and paying his legal fees.

“What bloody things like that were there for us? He’s had protection the whole time.”

Richards is more concerned with the result of the police investigation into Leeks. “Unless they charge him with torture, any other charge is just rubbish as far as I’ve concerned.”

“Dr Leeks certainly didn’t apply any rules of fairness to the children in his care at Lake Alice.” – Mike Ferriss

Mike Ferriss, of Auckland, is the New Zealand director of the Citizens Commission for Human Rights, a group established by the Church of Scientology that has advocated for Lake Alice victims since the 1970s.

He turns the tables on the Commission’s idea of fairness.

“Dr Leeks certainly didn’t apply any rules of fairness to the children in his care at Lake Alice – they weren’t afforded any right to object to and refuse ‘treatment’.”

Leeks has always maintained he was practising psychiatry at Lake Alice, Ferriss says.

“I can’t see that he would have put forward any other kind of defence, even if he could have stood in front of the Royal Commission … or adding anything new to what he’s already said.”

The Commission’s minute was inevitable, Ferriss says, given the weight of evidence. He believes the Commission will find the abuse at Lake Alice was criminal.

“Speaking on behalf of our group, but also many of the survivors, they have quite some gratitude to the commission for what took place in their hearing and their investigations. It’s very worthwhile.”

It was another Lake Alice survivor, Paul Zentveld, who took his case to the United Nations, leading to the non-binding recommendations from the UN Committee Against Torture.

Richards, of Hastings, is pursuing his own case with the UN but says it can’t proceed until the police investigation is completed and the Royal Commission recommendations are public.

“And if it’s not enough, well, the UN will come down on New Zealand again.”

More than 40 years since Lake Alice’s child and adolescent unit closed, the wait for justice continues. Yet many survivors are confronted by their past every day.

“This time of year is hell for me,” says Richards, who suffered brain damage from the electric shocks. “I don’t do crowds because of the post-traumatic stress, and I don’t do noise.”

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

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