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Lake Alice: a personal journey

Rosemary Thomson still feels the effects of her time being incarcerated at Lake Alice Hospital's child and adolescent unit. Her story is part of a disturbing scar on New Zealand's health and welfare history.

In 1976, I was in my first year at secondary school. I was in the top streamed class; I was the joint junior swimming champion; and I was fifth in the junior cross country. I had never been in any trouble at school or with the police and I had never had any physical or mental health issues.

On September  30, 1976, a few days after the school cross country race, I was home from school with my mother and in bed with a sore throat. A police constable came into my room and asked me a number of personal questions, which at the time I thought very inappropriate. After about half an hour, he left. About 2pm, a different police constable together with a man I know now to be the Youth Liaison Officer came to the house. The constable grabbed me, twisted my arm up my back and frog-marched me to our family car and pushed me into the back seat. He sat next to me while my father, accompanied by mother, drove.

There had been no discussion about where we were going or why. There certainly had been no medical assessment. I do remember the long journey and recall the long sweeping driveway leading to the institution.

The receptionist took some cursory details and I was led down a bleak corridor and flung through an open cell door. The door was then locked behind me. I remember sitting on the floor thinking “this is going to be a long journey from here”.

That was my introduction to the now notorious Lake Alice Child & Adolescent Unit.

As the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care and in the Care of Faith-based Institutions is now under way it is timely to review the regime at the Lake Alice Child & Adolescent Unit and the legal proceedings brought against Dr Selwyn Robert Leeks, the psychiatrist in charge.

The adolescent unit

Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital, located in the Rangitikei District between Whanganui and Palmerston North, was opened in August 1950 under the provisions of the Mental Defectives Act 1911. It was an adult psychiatric facility which also housed, from 1966, the National Secure Unit for the criminally insane.

Leeks, a former pupil of Auckland Grammar School was for a time in the 1960s attached to the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago. He obtained a Diploma in Psychological Medicine from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of London in 1969 and a Diploma of Child Psychiatry in 1971. In January 1971 Leeks began working for the Palmerston North Hospital Board.

The Adolescent Unit was opened in 1972 within the grounds of Lake Alice Hospital. Dr Sydney Pugmire was at the time Medical Superintendent. Leeks was seconded to the Department of Health to run it. According to Leeks, the unit was formed to deal with the increasing number of highly disturbed and anti-social adolescents who were being placed in the Lake Alice Hospital or for whom places were being sought.

Leeks was in a unique position. He was employed by the Palmerston North Hospital Board. Lake Alice Hospital was controlled by the Department of Health. Dr Pugmire advised that he had a written direction not to involve himself in clinical matters in the Adolescent Unit. It was therefore not under the effective control of the Hospital Board, which was Leeks’ employer, and also did not come under Dr Pugmire’s jurisdiction in the normal way. Leeks was effectively not accountable.

The Adolescent Unit started with 12 beds, but by June 1977 it was catering for 46 children – 36 boys and 10 girls aged between 8 and 16 years. The majority of the children were in the Adolescent Unit because of family problems, expulsion from schools and what was referred to as “character disorders”.

I was taken down a dingy hallway and thrown into what resembled a prison cell with bars on the window and a heavy metal door that was locked with a key.

I was taken to the Child and Adolescent Unit on the Monday four days after my arrival. I had had no contact with any doctor at that point.

I requested to see Dr Leeks, head of the unit, so that I could tell him that there had been a terrible mistake. When I met with him and his sidekick psychologist Victor Seoterik, he assured me there was no mistake and that I was not wanted by my parents.

At that stage, I was utterly terrified and wondered how a place like this could exist in the 1970s. At that stage I had not realised the full extent of the atrocities being carried out by Leeks.

Soon enough the other teenagers, particularly the boys started telling me what happens at the unit. I was already terrified but now realised the seriousness of the situation I was in and wondered if I would ever be able to get out.

The children were firmly contained within the building, they were not allowed to step foot outside without being punished, which turned out to be ECT and painful paraldehyde injections.

Between 1972 and 1977, over 400 children passed through the Adolescent Unit for varying periods. While some were referred on medical advice by their parents, the majority were placed by state agencies.

The Adolescent Unit was closed in 1978. Lake Alice Hospital was officially closed on Thursday September 21, 1995 when the last general psychiatric patients were transferred to a residential unit in Wanganui.

In 1977 and 1978 police investigated a complaint that three years earlier staff had given two boys, then aged 12 and 13 years, electric shocks on the legs using the same equipment used for ECT. The police spent seven months investigating this before issuing a statement saying that they had found no evidence of criminal conduct. Leeks left New Zealand a week before the release of the police inquiry.

He then set up practice as a child psychiatrist in Melbourne, where he was appointed director of child psychiatry at a child guidance clinic. He told The Dominion newspaper that he had “an open hand” to do what he could with the unit for disturbed boys, which he said was “full of murderers, rapists and liars”.

In 1994 two former patients issued civil proceedings against Leeks and the Ministry of Health.

Neither case went to trial, but were subject to confidential settlements.

Notably, the allegations and claims were not tested in any court hearing.

Class Action 1999

There was some initial newspaper coverage of allegations of abuse in May 1997, after several former patients had approached a lawyer and gained access to their files under the Privacy Act. One of the former patients described the situation as “just the tip of the iceberg”.

In July 1997, TV3’s 20/20 TVNZ programme broadcast for the first time an item featuring the Adolescent Unit and revelations by former patients alleging ECT and paraldehyde injections as a means of punishment.

The following day the Health Minister, Bill English, said he was concerned by allegations that young patients were abused there in the 1970s. He confirmed that a report from the lawyer acting for a number of former patients had been referred to him from the Attorney-General’s office.

The lawyer handling the then 76 claimants told the National Business Review in December 1998 that they were claiming $38 million and the claim might reach $70 million by the time it reached court. The claim would be made against Leeks, Mid Central Health in Palmerston North, the Residual Health Management Unit in Wellington and the Attorney-General, Douglas Graham, on behalf of the Ministry of Health.

A settlement was negotiated between the Crown and the lawyer for the class action. Retired High Court Judge Sir Rodney Gallen was appointed to divide the settlement monies between the various claimants.

First settlement 2001

On October 7, 2001 the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, and Health Minister, Annette King, announced the Crown had reached a settlement with a group of 95 former patients of the Adolescent Unit. They apologised to the group and said a personal apology would be conveyed to all complainants with whom settlement had been reached.

The press release indicated Cabinet had agreed the previous year that a settlement was the most appropriate way for the Crown to deal with this matter and set aside $6.5 million for that purpose. The Crown had paid the sum into the trust account of the complainant’s lawyer on September 24. 

A week after the government apology, on October 16, a spokesperson for the Solicitor-General advised that Crown Law would not instigate criminal proceedings and any investigation or prosecution was a police matter.

The Weekend Herald ran an article 11 days later about the legacy of Lake Alice. Leeks was contacted in Melbourne. He was under legal advice not to talk because he faced possible disciplinary and legal actions, but he told the newspaper:

"The treatment itself is being grossly misrepresented, but aversion therapy – as it was given, not as it is said was given – was fairly effective, and there was improvement, which didn’t altogether last, for a large number of them. For the ones who are complaining, it obviously didn’t last, or didn’t last as long as it might have. The ones that had it are a relatively small number of the total youth that went through."

A member of the nursing staff who was also spoken to accepted there had been some cruelty and had objected after helping Leeks give unmodified ECT to a youth who had run away. Leeks told him not to question his clinical judgment and reminded him that he lived in a hospital house. The nursing staff member said: "I think that Dr Leeks put himself above being personally affected by administering such treatment, and in so doing, failed to recognise the development of his own sadism and that of the staff that worked for him."

He went on to say the main flaw in the system in the 1970s was that psychiatrists were “all-powerful”. It followed that nurses were not able to question doctors’ orders.

The Gallen Report 2001

In September 2001, Sir Rodney released the Report on the Lake Alice Incidents (the Gallen Report).

Sir Rodney concluded that the basic theory at the Adolescent Unit was that behavioural modification could occur through rigid discipline and punishment for perceived unacceptable behaviour. Essentially, behaviour was being controlled by use of aversion therapy, resulting in consequences designed to be so unpleasant that the behaviour would cease.

He noted from the statements and medical notes it was plain that electroconvulsive therapy was in constant use on the children.

He was in no doubt that it was administered on many occasions to children at Lake Alice not as a therapy in the ordinary sense of the word but as a punishment.

He observed: "In chilling terms the applicants describe the pain which they sustained, sometimes over considerable periods. There are allegations that in some cases the current was administered, increased, reduced and increased again . . .

". . . all the children knew when ECT was being administered, and claimant after claimant speaks of the screaming which was plainly audible to other children in the unit when ECT was administered. Although the treatment was administered upstairs in the unit concerned, and the waiting children were downstairs, it is emphasised that the doors were left open. All the children also saw those who were to receive ECT being dragged and struggling upstairs to the room where the treatment was carried out. They also saw them stumbling down afterwards, often unaided."

Sir Rodney considered one of the more distressing aspects of the statements was the number of claimants who referred to children in a terrified group, concerned as to who would be next. There were accounts of staff members selecting children from the group, apparently at random.

Several claimants had said ECT was administered to the genitals, imposed when accused of unacceptable sexual behaviour. The ECT was plainly delivered as a means of inflicting pain in order to coerce behaviour. He described ECT delivered in circumstances that could not possibly be referred to as therapy, and when administered to defenceless children could only be described as outrageous in the extreme.

Sir Rodney noted solitary confinement was used from time to time as a punishment. A number of the statements indicated the children concerned were kept entirely naked while in solitary confinement, which comprised a mattress, a bucket for toilet facilities and nothing else.

In summary, based on the large number of statements and interviews, Sir Rodney considered the children lived in a state of extreme fear, hopelessness and “terror” during the period they spent at Lake Alice.

Second settlement 2002

The first round of payments did not dispose of all claims. A number of former patients had not participated. Some were unaware of the class action, and others, for personal reasons, had expressly elected not to become involved in the process.

There was political pressure to resolve these other claims. Towards the end of 2001, the Government decided to follow a process similar to that used to allocate the proceeds of the class action. The Government invited any further claimants to come forward. A second group of 88 claimants was identified. The sum of $4.2 million was allocated for payment. They were also to receive personal apologies.

Australian developments

Leeks could not be investigated by the New Zealand Medical Council as he was no longer registered and therefore had already been removed from the register because he was no longer a New Zealand resident.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists called for the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria to investigate Leeks’ role at Lake Alice Hospital and the fact that he remained practising. They board confirmed it would look into the claims of mistreatment and commenced a preliminary investigation. The executive director of the College of Psychiatrists said the allegations were eroding public confidence in the medical system. He had been fielding phone calls from worried patients to ask how they could be protected from doctors who behaved inappropriately. 

"It was not psychiatry and it was not medicine. It was child abuse and it was torture. I don’t care if it happened 20 years ago, 30 years ago, or yesterday. If this occurred and he created this fear and anything like the allegations are based in fact, this person must be gone."

In 2003 the Australian board, following legal advice, determined it had jurisdiction to hold a formal hearing into the professional conduct of Leeks.

On the eve of a disciplinary hearing into the allegations the 77-year old Leeks surrendered his medical licence in return for the case not proceeding. Leeks gave the board an undertaking he would stop practising any form of medicine.

The following month a civil case was brought in the County Court of Victoria by a woman against Leeks seeking damages for indecent assault. She alleged that in or about 1979 and 1980 she consulted Leeks in his professional capacity and in the course of those consultations she was sexually assaulted by him. Leeks contended he had no recollection of her, but he did not dispute that she may have consulted him. He disputed any sexual impropriety occurred and said nothing of that character ever occurred in the course of his professional practice.

The court found: "… that a senior and well-credentialled psychiatrist took advantage of the vulnerability of a disturbed psychiatric patient for the purposes of sexual gratification. The defendant’s disregard for the plaintiff and her illness is highlighted by the contemptuous words used to persuade her from complaining about the assault. In my opinion, this was reprehensible conduct that fully justifies exemplary damages. However, it would seem to me that the grounds for exemplary damages overlap the basis for an award of damages for assault."

The court ordered Leeks to pay $55,000 in damages. Leeks appealed the decision, but this was dismissed by the Victorian Court of Appeal.

Police inquiry

In 2002 New Zealand Police received complaints from 34 Lake Alice patients, which included allegations of inappropriate use of ECT by Leeks. When approached by media, Leeks responded, “I’m not worried. This has all been dealt with before. And I’m still practising”.

In September 2005 a police national headquarters spokesperson said there had been no disclosed activity or intervention with patients at Lake Alice that amounted to criminal offending on the part of Leeks. On that basis there was neither requirement nor authority to seek his extradition.

Leeks has always denied any criminal offending or professional misconduct at the Adolescent Unit.


I was correct, it has been a long journey. I was not at the adolescent unit for a lengthy period but the memories of what I was subjected to and what I saw and heard, remain.

The entire time I was at the unit, I was so fearful I could hardly breathe, my chest was so tight. The overriding atmosphere in the unit was sheer terror and helplessness.

I realised I had to get some sort of communication happening with my parents before Leeks could mislead them.

I tried writing but the letters were opened and given to Leeks.

I realised I would have to speak to my parents by phone. I prevailed upon a nurse who each night batted me away with the same excuse, that he had to seek permission from Leeks for a phone call out.

Finally, one night the nurse asked if I had permission from Leeks. "Of course,” I said. So on that basis he dialled the number and stood there while I spoke.

I was so emotional I could barely speak, but knew I had to get a message to my mother. The nurse then grabbed the phone off me.

The next day when my mother informed Leeks she was taking me home, he replied that I had done a good job “manipulating and conning” them.

I consider this phone call saved me and was nothing short of a miracle.

I spent a total of eight days at the unit. The experience has left a permanent impact. There is not a single day I don’t think about it.

I was one of the fortunate survivors. I attended university, obtained a law degree and practised. The stigma of Lake Alice was always there. I avoided sharing about what happened to anyone but when I did, I always regretted it.

My life, however ,did work out and I have had a successful and satisfying personal and professional life. I was one of those who reached a settlement with the Crown and received a letter of apology from the then Prime Minister.

As to the stigma, it may well remain but I no longer care.

This article is not intended to be about my story. I am simply one of the survivors, probably one of the luckiest. Each survivor has had their own difficult journey.

Without accountability however there will not be closure for the survivors.

I therefore pose the question, will Leeks ever be held accountable?

The Royal Commission of Inquiry is due to provide an interim report by the end of December 2020 and a final report with recommendations by January 3, 2023. By the latter date, Leeks will be 93 years old.

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