Taken By The State

Glimmer of hope for Lake Alice victims

Police start “initial” investigation into abuse at a notorious psychiatric hospital. David Williams reports

The Government has missed a 90-day deadline for responding to a United Nations committee over torture at Lake Alice’s child and adolescent unit in the 1970s.

However, in a move that might represent a glimmer of hope for victims, police confirm they’ve opened an “initial” investigation phase into abuse claims.

In December, the UN committee against torture published a damning report saying successive governments hadn’t properly investigated uncontested allegations of torture at the state psychiatric hospital, near Whanganui. The Government had 90 days to respond, which expired last Wednesday.

Crown Law confirms the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has provided a two-month extension because of the Covid-19 outbreak, which applies to the Government’s response to the committee against torture (UNCAT). “We are, however, working to submit the Government’s response to the UNCAT as soon as reasonably possible,” Solicitor-General Una Jogose’s executive assistant Elizabeth Underhill says.

The UN committee’s report was prompted by a complaint by Auckland fishing skipper Paul Zentveld, who spent nearly three years at Lake Alice from the age of 13, suffering “treatment” of electric shocks, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), drugs, and solitary confinement.

Zentveld expected the Government to miss the deadline. “They’ve had 90 days to come up with a result – it’s hopeless,” he says. “If they can’t do the job they should be replaced, and it’s a huge insult to all survivors.”

Similar sentiments are expressed by another Lake Alice victim, Malcolm Richards, of Hastings, who has complained to the UN committee about ECT use that left him brain-damaged, and with a burn to the penis.

“They were given 90 days,” Richards says. “Most of that was up before the Covid-19 even started affecting New Zealand. So what the heck? That’s just another bullshit excuse as far as I’m concerned.”

Initial investigation phase

As reported last month, in the wake of the non-binding UN decision – that the government violated three articles of the Convention Against Torture – police said they were reviewing their file on Lake Alice psychiatrist Selwyn Leeks.

Newsroom asked police if the review is complete and, if so, to be told the result. We also wanted to know if a wider investigation of other abuse cases has begun.

An anonymised police spokesperson responds via email: “Police have commenced the initial investigation phase in respect of complaints of ill treatment at Lake Ellis. Unfortunately the response to Covid-19 will affect the timing of completing this initial investigation phase.”

How many complaints? “The initial investigation phase will clarify this,” the spokesperson says. “As such we’re not able to comment further at this stage.”

The phrase “initial investigation” leaves Richards fuming. He and at least two others made sexual assault complaints that prompted a fresh police investigation, a fact mentioned in the UN report.

“I put my complaint in over a year ago – so did Paul,” Richards says. “How long does it take to investigate a case long enough to say yes we can or no we can’t prosecute? They’ve had over 12 months now.”

Zentveld believes police foot-dragging might have held up the government response to Geneva. “I don’t know why they keep embarrassing the Police Minister and [Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern and not doing their f****** job.”

It’s a new twist in a murky history of multiple inquiries that have failed to hold anyone to account.

The first child abuse complaints from Lake Alice emerged in 1976. The government officially apologised and paid $12.8 million in compensation to 195 victims. Police spent three-and-a-half years investigating, concluding 10 years ago there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Leeks, the psychiatrist in charge who has always denied wrongdoing. (He moved to Australia in the late 1970s and is still thought to be living there.)

The UN committee’s December report notes Lake Alice “events” happened, they meet the threshold of torture “or, at least, of ill-treatment”, and Zentveld was a victim. There was evidence of the application of ECT and electric shocks at Lake Alice, but the UN report says it wasn’t clear police made sufficient effort to “clarify the facts”. Only one of the 41 people who had filed criminal complaints were interviewed by police.

Last month, Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft added pressure for a further investigation into abusive practices at Lake Alice, saying it is “clearly required”.

“What took place was not treatment – I think that’s very clear.” – Mike Ferriss

Not everyone scoffs at the latest police statement.

The Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a group aligned with the Church of Scientology, represented Zentveld at the UN. Mike Ferriss, the group’s director in this country, says he understands the disappointment of Zentveld and Richards but if an investigation has begun that’s good news.

“It is what we’ve wanted all along.”

The UN committee report from December demanded a “prompt, impartial and independent investigation” into Lake Alice allegations and “where appropriate, the filing of specific torture and/or ill-treatment charges against the perpetrators”.

If a crime’s been committed then someone should be charged and brought to justice, Ferriss says. “Because so far the message to the community has been, all along, that you can get away with this.”

He adds: “What took place was not treatment – I think that’s very clear.”

The police will need expert medical opinions and advice on how to read medical notes, he says. Also to define the misuse of drugs, and misuse of the ECT machine. He hopes police access information from historical cases of cruel and inhumane treatment at Lake Alice.

“It was not aversion therapy,” Ferriss says. “It was some sadistic drama.”

Uncertainty for Lake Alice victims is compounded by the national shutdown because of Covid-19. But not much has changed for Richards, who has debilitating mental and physical health problems. “In my situation I don’t go anywhere and do anything anyway,” he tells Newsroom. “It’s pretty easy for me to go through this next month – it’s not much difference at all.”

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