Taken By The State

UN condemns NZ’s response to Lake Alice torture

Official investigations into abuse at Lake Alice psychiatric hospital were effectively a sham, UN finds

New Zealand has been condemned by the United Nations for violating the UN Convention against Torture. The committee heavily criticised successive governments for repeatedly failing to properly investigate undisputed historic allegations of torture of children at a psychiatric hospital.

Lake Alice psychiatric hospital was closed in the late 20th century but an adolescent and children’s unit that ran there in the 1970s has been the subject of serious allegations of abuse for decades. Although the government paid compensation to victims in the early 2000s, there has been constant criticism from victims’ advocates and the UN itself that there was never a thorough investigation.

Now the UN has come out and condemned that failure, a failure that occurred under the Helen Clark government. It first criticised New Zealand in 2015 while Helen Clark was still the head of UN Development Programme. She made an unsuccessful bid for the top job at the UN in 2016.

The UN Committee against Torture was asked by Paul Zentveld, a former patient of the adolescent unit, to consider allegations of torture relating to time he spent there as a child.

Zentveld is not the only one to have made such allegations over the years – hundreds took civil action against the government in the late 1990s and early 2000s over abuse they suffered as children at Lake Alice. However, no-one was ever held accountable. 

The adolescent unit at Lake Alice was something of an experiment in an era when child welfare institutions were at their peak in New Zealand. Those institutions were brutal in their severity and the majority of the children in them were Māori. The abuse that occurred in them is now the subject of a Royal Commission of Inquiry. Many of those who were patients of the Lake Alice adolescent and children’s unit also went through the welfare homes and describe the abuse at Lake Alice as the worst they experienced.

When she was Prime Minister, Helen Clark wrote an apology letter to claimants in civil litigation. Photo: Getty Images

Although the Clark government paid out ex gratia compensation, and Clark herself wrote a letter of apology to claimants in civil litigation in the early 2000s, the UN has found that the investigation by the government and particularly the police was effectively a sham.

High Court Judge Sir Rodney Gallen was asked by the government to make a recommendation on how compensation should be divided among claimants. However, he went beyond his remit and interviewed most of the claimants and also examined a large number of related documents.

He concluded that the abuse, including physical and sexual abuse as well as electrocution, was “outrageous in the extreme”. His report was leaked to the media and Crown Law tried unsuccessfully in court to prevent its publication.

In one incident Sir Rodney reported a child was put in a cage with a severely disturbed adult psychiatric patient.

Central to the allegations of torture was the use of ECT, or Electric Convulsive Therapy, which involved giving children doses of electrocution to not only their heads but other parts of their bodies, including their genitals. However, the application of ECT was not for therapy but for punishment. It was used as part of what was termed aversion therapy, a punishment for behaviour. Contrary to standard use of ECT it was administered without anaesthetic or muscle relaxant.  

Children who ran away were electrocuted on the legs. Children caught masturbating or displaying inappropriate sexual behaviour were electrocuted on the genitals. Children were electrocuted for not eating their vegetables or not getting high enough school grades. 

However, the UN says the New Zealand government constantly failed to hold anyone accountable for these acts which clearly violated the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. It also noted that the government has never disputed the allegations.

In its 2019 report it reiterated its finding in 2015 that “the state party failed to investigate or hold any individual accountable for the nearly 200 allegations of torture and ill-treatment against minors at Lake Alice Hospital”.

It then added that: “the committee considers that the state party’s failure to conduct an effective investigation into the circumstances surrounding the acts of torture and ill-treatment suffered by the complainant while admitted at the children and adolescent unit of the Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital is incompatible with the state party’s obligations under articles 12, 13 and 14 of the convention”.

“The committee considers that in the specific circumstances of such undisputed historic complaints, choosing to analyse only one complaint triggers the risk of ignoring the systemic character of the issue at stake and all the surrounding circumstances.” – UN Committee against Torture report

The committee decided that “the facts before it reveal a violation by the state party of articles 12, 13 and 14 of the convention”.

The report noted that the government has not contested that the treatment alleged meets the threshold of torture as defined in article 1 of the convention. 

It highlighted that the police investigation was severely flawed because it only spoke directly to one of the victims as the basis for its investigation.

“The committee considers that in the specific circumstances of such undisputed historic complaints, choosing to analyse only one complaint triggers the risk of ignoring the systemic character of the issue at stake and all the surrounding circumstances.”

Although the Royal Commission of Inquiry will be investigating Lake Alice along with a number of other institutions, the committee pointed out that the commission cannot bring criminal prosecutions. 

The commission’s chair Judge Coral Shaw says the inquiry is already investigating Lake Alice and those investigations will be an ongoing part of its work.

“Commissioners in their private sessions, and members of the investigative team, have already engaged with a number of survivors of abuse at Lake Alice. In particular we acknowledge the complainant who took the case to the United Nations, who has been working with our investigative team.

Official inquiries into abuse at Lake Alice will be examined by the Royal Commission. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“The Royal Commission will use its extensive powers to ensure a thorough examination of what occurred at Lake Alice and the Government’s response.

“This will include examining the response of the Police and Crown to serious allegations of abuse.

“The Royal Commission expects to hold a public hearing into abuse at the adolescent unit at Lake Alice in 2020, as part of a broader investigation into abuse in psychiatric care.

“The inquiry will address abuse of both adults and children in psychiatric care,” says Judge Shaw.

“The Royal Commission has strong powers to obtain information, and may make findings of fault and recommendations for further steps to determine liability.”

“In accordance with the Inquiries Act 2013, the Royal Commission will not make findings of civil, criminal or disciplinary liability.”

The UN Committee has urged the New Zealand government to carry out a thorough investigation, to consider proper redress and to respond to its report within 90 days.

Aaron Smale is an award-winning freelance journalist and PhD candidate. His research topic is Māori children in state custody.

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