Dame Karen Poutasi

A decorated former health official charged with reviewing government agencies’ actions before a child’s death was in another life a departmental head not answering police questions over Lake Alice

The former bureaucrat now investigating Oranga Tamariki’s latest failure was in charge of the Ministry of Health for more than 10 years from the mid-1990s, a period when it failed to carry out a thorough investigation into the abuse of children in the Lake Alice psychiatric hospital.

Dame Karen Poutasi is leading an independent review of the response of government departments to concerns raised about five-year-old Malachi Subecz, who was abused and murdered by his caregiver.

However, Dame Karen was Director General of the Ministry of Health from 1995 to 2006, when civil action was taken against the government by survivors of the adolescent unit at the Lake Alice psychiatric hospital.

Children at the unit at Lake Alice, which operated in the 1970s, were tortured, raped and sexually abused. The UN found in 2019 that New Zealand was in breach of the Convention Against Torture because it had failed to carry out a thorough investigation into Lake Alice.

The Ministry of Health had the primary responsibility for Lake Alice but other government departments, such as the Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry of Education also had responsibilities and potential legal exposure. Most of the children had been in the custody of the Department of Social Welfare at the time and there was a school at Lake Alice.

In 2005 police wrote to Dame Karen requesting information regarding allegations of sexual abuse against former staff of Lake Alice. Dame Karen replied, asking if the request was under police powers or through the Official Information Act.   

In her reply she said that if the request was through the OIA, the ministry would have to consider the privacy rights of the alleged perpetrators.

“As the information requested concerns details of individuals, consideration would need to be given to the privacy interests of those individuals balanced against any public interest considerations in a release. Consideration would also need to be given to the terms of any employment agreements between former staff and the Department of Health, in relation to release of personal information.”

The Ministry of Health under Poutasi never carried out a thorough investigation of what happened at Lake Alice, even though evidence was found during civil litigation that corroborated the complaints made to police.

There were a number of leads in the Lake Alice case that were not thoroughly investigated when the civil litigation was filed in the 1990s and when a police complaint was made in 2002.  Police apologised to survivors at the Royal Commission last year for failing to properly investigate. 

Documents that have since been exposed in the Royal Commission show government agencies knew the allegations were true and a report from Judge Rodney Gallen in the early 2000s verified the claims. One example is a report written by an educational psychologist in the 1970s that described children being put in an adult unit with dangerous psychiatric patients who raped and sexually assaulted them. The report mentions that the head of mental health, Dr Stanley Mirams, and the superintendent of Lake Alice, Syd Pugmire, were aware this was happening.  Another educational psychologist had repeatedly raised concerns about Lake Alice with his superiors in the 1970s and went public in the media in the late 1990s. But he wasn’t spoken to by anyone from any government agencies.

Newsroom has sent Oranga Tamariki a series of questions about Dame Karen’s role in the failure to properly investigate Lake Alice and whether it is appropriate for her to be investigating Oranga Tamariki, but it did not provide answers. 

In response to Malachi Subecz’s murder, Oranga Tamariki is conducting a review into its practice while Dame Karen Poutasi is conducting an independent review looking at the roles and responsibilities of the different agencies involved in Malachi’s care.

The Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier investigated the Malachi Subecz case and released his findings last Wednesday.

“I can only describe Oranga Tamariki’s response as a litany of failures,” he said.

The five-year-old died in hospital of his injuries in November 2021.

Five months before his death his mother, who was imprisoned, had placed Malachi in the care of a friend, Michaela Barriball. She was convicted and jailed earlier this year for the murder and mistreatment of Malachi.

“The circumstances surrounding Malachi’s death are extremely distressing. I launched an investigation after his cousin and uncle complained to me about the actions of Oranga Tamariki.”

Mr Boshier says the cousin first made a report of concern about the boy’s welfare to Oranga Tamariki in June 2021.

Issues were raised about actual and potential harm, including medical neglect and suspected physical abuse.

“A number of things are supposed to happen following a report of concern in cases where a child is at risk of harm or neglect and if it appears an investigation is necessary or desirable.”

Mr Boshier says these steps were not taken.

Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

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