Selwyn Leeks’ death leaves it largely to the Government to answer questions about accountability over what happened at Lake Alice. David Williams reports

Many Lake Alice survivors learnt of their chief tormentor’s death in an email yesterday from lawyer Frances Joychild QC, who represented them at recent Royal Commission hearings.

The subject line reads: Selwyn Leeks died January 6, 2022.

“I know this will bring up many emotions for you,” Joychild wrote. “Take care and remind yourself how stoic and wonderful you are to have spoken up and not let the truth die with him.”

Truth is one thing, but there was a vain hope it would be linked with justice.

Leeks was the architect of an unusually cruel treatment regime as head psychiatrist at the notorious Lake Alice child and adolescent unit, located near Whanganui. It closed in 1978 under a cloud after it emerged patients, many of them state wards, were being given electric shocks as punishment. Leeks, who always denied wrongdoing, left for Australia.

The regime at Lake Alice included painful injections being forced on youngsters, and long periods of isolation. Physical and sexual abuse also took place. It was a place of torture.

In the last two years, Lake Alice has been thrust back into the public spotlight. The United Nations Committee Against Torture found previous investigations were effectively a sham, leading police to re-open their investigation – their third.

The Royal Commission into Abuse in Care held hearings dedicated to Lake Alice, at which courageous survivors – some represented by Joychild – told their harrowing life stories. Importantly, they were believed.

Their testimony traversed decades of cover-ups, whitewash investigations (although some found evidence of wrongdoing), and legal battles with a state hell-bent on limiting its liability. Apologies were forthcoming from police, Crown Law and the Medical Council.

Last month, police charged former Lake Alice staffer John Richard Corkran, 89, with ill-treating children – accused of injecting patients aged under 16 with paralysing drugs as punishment between 1974 and 1977.

Leeks and another ex-staffer would have been charged, police said, had they been medically fit to stand trial.

And now, weeks later, Leeks is dead – something picked up almost three weeks later through a family Facebook post.

“He should have been made accountable decades ago and this would have helped with your own adult lives,” Joychild told survivors yesterday.

“For my part, I consider it a total and abject failure of our medical, social welfare and justice systems that he was allowed to live out so many happy years in Australia with a family who loved him while you/your loved ones suffered so much as a result of his actions.”

“He didn’t leave this world as we would have hoped.” – Leoni McInroe

Some reactions to Leeks’ death are predictable.

“Good fucking job,” says Paul Zentveld, an Auckland fishing skipper who spent nearly three years at Lake Alice from the age of 13. “He won’t be going to heaven, will he?”

(It was Zentveld’s case that led the UN Committee to condemn successive governments for repeatedly failing to properly investigate allegations of torture against children; allegations which, it noted, were undisputed.)

In 1975, aged 15, Malcolm Richards, of Hastings, spent two months at Lake Alice, causing “lifelong, debilitating trauma”. He was held down and given electric shocks on his head, legs, and penis as punishment, and was raped while unconscious after shock “treatment”.

Of Leeks’ death, Richards says: “Can’t do any more harm now, can he?”

Other comments are a little more contemplative.

Auckland’s Leoni McInroe notes the peaceful, privileged life Leeks appears to have had “after leaving all those children he brutally tortured and harmed”.

“He didn’t leave this world as we would have hoped – lamenting over his wrongs, alone, lonely, broken himself under the weight and burden of his evilness to so many children, and the vast impact on their lives.”

Leoni McInroe giving evidence in 2020. Screenshot: Abuse in Care Royal Commission

The case of McInroe, an anaesthetic technician and mother of four, has reverberated around the halls of power. She had two stints, spanning 18 months, at Lake Alice, starting in 1975, when she was 14.

Spending much of her time heavily medicated, she was shocked with an electro-convulsive treatment machine without anaesthetic, as punishment. She was assaulted by adult patients with serious mental illnesses, and put in seclusion for long periods.

But then she was re-traumatised by the state in a nine-year legal battle, including a face-to-face, secret meeting with Leeks which was organised and hushed up by Crown lawyers.

Last year, her uncompromising testimony was picked out as a case study by the Royal Commission.

Crown Law’s unacceptable behaviour, of tactical delays and compassionless, bullying tactics, prompted a personal apology from Solicitor General Una Jagose. (Jagose’s testimony to the commission included an admission that in the mid-to-late 1990s, Crown Law had enough evidence to realise Lake Alice complaints were potentially criminal.)

While McInroe eventually settled her $1.5 million civil claim for a small sum in 2002, Leeks was living well across the Tasman.

McInroe says the former psychiatrist appears to have died “with adoring offspring holding his hand; beside him, mourning his passing.

“How weird. How very weird.”

Quest for justice

There have been bright spots in the pursuit of justice, such as the eight charges laid against Corkran, who has pleaded not guilty.

Last month, the Royal Commission warned Leeks, through his Australian lawyer, he faces “adverse findings” in their Lake Alice report, due to be made public mid-year. It’s unclear if Leeks – who, according to his lawyer last June, had cancer and dementia-like symptoms – was well enough to understand what that meant.

The Commission’s work is hugely important, says Mike Ferriss, the New Zealand director of the Citizens Commission for Human Rights, a group aligned with the Church of Scientology. (It was CCHR that helped Zentveld take his case to the UN.)

“What the Royal Commission has exposed through its hearing, and will expose through their report – that’s huge in terms of accountability of the psychiatrist and his profession, and the lack of action by the Medical Council.”

The commission’s interim redress report, He Purapura Ora, he Māra Tipu – From Redress to Puretumu Torowhānui, recommends a blueprint for establishing an independent Crown entity to handle redress for abuse claims.

(The report’s inescapable conclusion is “New Zealand is a place of abuse and torture, where vulnerable and marginalised people have been wrenched from families, cleaving cultural connections, based on a system of racism and discrimination”.)

Oliver Sutherland, of ACORD, the Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination, has advocated on behalf of survivors since the 1970s. It was his group that exposed the first case of mistreatment, leading to a front page NZ Herald story in December 1976.

Sutherland, who lives in Nelson, says a lot is going to hang on what the Royal Commission’s Lake Alice report says.

“And of course, you’ve seen their redress report, which is a very powerful document indeed. It will be an immense challenge for any government that is required to pick it up and deal with it.”

Richards, of Hastings, is of a different opinion. He says the interim report is weak, in that it doesn’t suggest matching the Australian redress model, and he worries survivors will have to tell their stories, yet again, to the new body – “it’s just another kick in the teeth.”

(Sutherland agrees survivors shouldn’t have to re-tell their stories, which have already been entered into the Commission’s record.)

In 1977, Oliver Sutherland, of ACORD, said the misuse of shock equipment at Lake Alice, if proved, would constitute “perhaps the most appalling abuse of children in the guardianship of the state that this country has known”. Screenshot: Abuse in Care Royal Commission

What makes the Government’s reaction to the Royal Commission recommendations so important is how inextricably linked the Crown is to what happened.

As Sutherland describes, state wards were basically shuffled between departments – from social welfare homes to Lake Alice, and from Department of Education schools to the child and adolescent unit, which was run by the Palmerston North hospital board, part of the Health Department.

One parent described his son to Sutherland as a “sack of potatoes”, as he was constantly being picked up from one place and put down in another. “We never knew where he was,” the father said.

These were government departments supposedly caring for vulnerable children.

And it wasn’t like people in power were oblivious to the dreadful depth of abuses at Lake Alice. “We told them,” says Sutherland, who first wrote to Social Welfare Minister Bert Walker in 1976.

(The Minister bowed to pressure the following year, and announced an inquiry – which eventually “vindicated” the department, Walker said. The report was seen as a whitewash.)

Some enquiries believed the children – notably Ombudsman Sir Guy Powles in 1977, and Sir Rodney Gallen in 2001. Gallen, a retired High Court judge, was asked to produce a compensation report for the government. But he took it upon himself to interview more survivors than the police did in their second investigation.

What happened at Lake Alice was “outrageous in the extreme”, Gallen said. Soon after, the government settled a class action taken by survivors, apologised, and made ex-gratia payments.

About $13 million was paid to 195 survivors, but some money was withheld to pay legal fees and expenses. In all, four government agencies – Ministry of Social Development, the Education and Health Ministries, and Oranga Tamariki – have paid $48 million in out-of-court settlements as of November last year to 2300 survivors of abuse.

The second police investigation into Lake Alice fizzled out in 2010 without charges – although police apologised last year for not giving the inquiry sufficient priority or resources, admitting not all allegations were thoroughly investigated. (Not only that, many of the files and witness statements were lost.)

Attorney General Chris Finlayson drew a line under it, saying a more extensive inquiry into Lake Alice wasn’t warranted. That was until the UN committee urged the government to properly investigate the abuse and torture at Lake Alice.

“This lays squarely on their hands. That is in itself a national disgrace.” – Leoni McInroe

A pattern emerges over the decades.

It is one of government departments, who had failed vulnerable children, scrambling to avoid legal liability, backed by a legal strategy of delay and bullying.

For example, the Crown forced McInroe to undergo a psychiatric examination, seven years after her papers were first filed. The venue? The Mason Clinic – a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane.

Other survivors felt boxed into a legal corner, and accepted paltry settlements.

All the while, Leeks lived out his final years quietly, and relatively normally, in Australia.

The scale and scope of it all – the sheer number of bodies that failed to act in the interests of tortured children – is breathtaking.

When Leeks left New Zealand, and de-registered, the Medical Council refused to investigate him. In Australia, the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria dropped formal proceedings against him after he agreed to surrender his Australian medical licence. (A court later ordered him to pay restitution to the victim of sexual assault.)

Even the belated police investigation, prompted by the scathing UN committee report, was too late to catch up with Leeks.

McInroe says yesterday: “How utterly soul-destroying to now know and begin to comprehend the enormity of political interference, omissions, inaction of all the high-seated people who have enabled this injustice, who have protected, defended and shepherded [Leeks] to his grave without ever facing accountability.”

She names the people and bodies that failed her: the Crown, Ian Carter, Grant Liddell, the police, the Medical Council, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education.

“This lays squarely on their hands. That is in itself a national disgrace.”

Joychild, the lawyer representing many survivors, says society as a whole is left to pick up the pieces of those who were admitted to Lake Alice, and their families. “Every part of the lives are affected by it. And the whole society is weakened by it.”

What McInroe and other survivors want from the government is fair compensation, a heartfelt apology, and rehabilitation to help repair their lives – lives broken by the state more than 40 years ago.

The question is, what will they get? The answer has already taken too long.

Last month, in response to the Commission’s interim report, the Government said it would develop a new, independent redress system but final decisions aren’t expected until mid-2023. Areas of urgent action, like advance payments to the older or terminally-ill, would be prioritised.

There is a footnote, here.

McInroe is comforted by her faith – something “bigger than the Crown, any court or police in any country”.

The ultimate accountability is to God, she says – “the same God that suspends the stars in the night sky, and breathed life into our universe, and aches for every single hurt or harmed innocent child”.

There’s nowhere to hide, McInroe says. “Leeks has to stand in front of my God. I’m at peace with that.”

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

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