Taken By The State

Police review Lake Alice file after UN decision

Child victims of a notorious North Island psychiatric hospital are still doubtful charges will be laid. David Williams reports

Police are reviewing their file on Lake Alice psychiatrist Selwyn Leeks in the wake of a landmark decision by a United Nations committee.

In December, the Committee against Torture issued a damning report criticising successive governments for not properly investigating uncontested historic allegations of torture at the child and adolescent unit of Lake Alice, a state psychiatric hospital, near Whanganui.

Police concluded a three-and-a-half-year investigation in 2010, deciding there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Leeks, the psychiatrist in charge. Also, too much time had passed since the 1970s, police said, several key witnesses were dead, and there had already been many investigations.

In 2015, the same UN committee said the government, referred to as the “state party”, had “failed to investigate or hold any individual accountable for the nearly 200 allegations of torture and ill-treatment against minors at Lake Alice Hospital”.

In its latest decision, the UN Committee against Torture (UNCAT) says the police report from 2010 found evidence of the application of electro-convulsive therapy, known as ECT, and electric shocks at Lake Alice, and it wasn’t clear sufficient effort had been made to “clarify the facts”. Police only interviewed one of the 41 people who had filed criminal complaints – a “representative complaint” that police said was, and still is, “accepted practice”.

The UN committee remains unconvinced the Lake Alice abuse issue is being handled properly, despite a Royal Commission into historic abuses in state care being established in 2018, and a fresh police investigation into three Lake Alice-related complaints of sexual assault.

“In the absence of convincing explanations by the state party, the committee fails to see why there is no countervailing public interest in proceeding with a prosecution,” the UN committee report says.

Authorities “have not tried to find out if anybody else could be held responsible”, the report says, “which raises doubts as to the effectiveness of the police investigation”. The committee’s recommendations aren’t binding.

In response to questions from Newsroom, acting national crime manager Detective Inspector Paul Hampton says in an emailed statement: “Police have finished reviewing the UNCAT report and are now in the process of reviewing the [Leeks] file as a result.

“Police provided input to the UNCAT report via Crown Law. We suggest you contact them for any further questions regarding the report, if you have not done so already.”

Crown Law wouldn’t provide comment attributable to a named spokesperson. But it said police were responsible for the response, and the Ministers of Police (Stuart Nash), Health (David Clark), and Attorney-General David Parker are being reported to by officials.

Newsroom asked police a series of questions, including: Who asked for the review, and are Government Ministers involved? Who is conducting it? What is its purpose? And how long is it expected to take?

The reply, from the anonymised Police Media email, says: “Police will not be commenting further while the file is being reviewed.”

Comment was also sought from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Police Minister Stuart Nash. Nash’s office directed Newsroom back to police.

The Government has 90 days – expiring next month – to respond to the UN committee.

“The UN ruled it torture so I don’t see why they’re mucking about.” – Malcolm Richards

The UN decision – that the government has violated three articles of the Convention Against Torture – was prompted by a complaint from Paul Zentveld, who was first admitted to Lake Alice in 1974, aged 13, and spent nearly three years there. His “treatment” for supposed bad behaviour was electric shocks, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), drugs, and solitary confinement.

(Journalist Aaron Smale wrote in Newsroom last month: “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.”)

It's uncontested, the UN committee notes, the Lake Alice “events” happened, they meet the threshold of torture “or, at least, of ill-treatment”, and Zentveld was a victim.

Zentveld, an Auckland fishing skipper, is reading nothing into the police file review. “It means nothing, really, until there’s some action.”

He’s got good reason for cynicism – after decades of what he calls cover-ups, obfuscation, stalling, and the police not believing patients and their complaints. Pleading for help from elected politicians and non-elected officials, with few bright spots.

Zentfeld says he doesn’t know what should happen now. “I lost my education at 12, and I’m a victim,” he says. “Why should I need to know? I’m not the law. We have a Government that runs this country, ask them.”

Malcolm Richards, of Hastings, has lodged his own UN complaint about torture at Lake Alice which is still under consideration. ECT treatment left him brain-damaged, and with a burn on his penis.

“It’s affected my whole life. I can’t remember my daughter who died of cancer. I can’t remember what she looked like, what she sounded like, without playing back videos. Thank God for computers.”

Asked about the prospects of accountability for what happened at Lake Alice, Richards mentions he’s had several heart attacks. “I don’t hold out hope that they will do something in my lifetime.”

On the flip-side, he says the UN committee finding is clear. “The UN ruled it torture so I don’t see why they’re mucking about.”

Leeks, who moved to Australia in the late 1970s and is thought to still be living there, has always denied any criminal offending or professional misconduct at Lake Alice’s adolescent unit.

The first complaints about abuse of children at Lake Alice emerged in 1976. But despite multiple inquiries, and an official government apology and $12.8 million in compensation paid to 195 victims to settle a class action lawsuit, no one has been held accountable.

In 2001, a report by retired High Court judge Sir Rodney Gallen – a report the government fought to keep secret – laid out the “state of extreme fear and hopelessness” of children sent to Lake Alice. ECT was constantly used, “unmodified” – without the use of anaesthesia or muscle relaxants – as a punishment, sending plainly audible screams of pain around the unit, Gallen found. Based on interviews with half of the initial 95 claimants, he was satisfied “in the main the allegations which have been made are true”.

December’s UN committee report demands, among other things, a “prompt, impartial and independent investigation” into the allegations and “where appropriate, the filing of specific torture and/or ill-treatment charges against the perpetrators”. (In 2009, the same committee requested a prompt and impartial investigation.)

Attempted knockout blow

Crown Law tried to knock out the Zentveld complaint on technicalities.

It told the UN committee the allegations took place before the country signed up to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Zentveld had other avenues to pursue, it said, such as challenging decisions of the Medical Council in a domestic court, and participating in the Royal Commission into historical abuse in state care. Plus, Crown Law argued, the time elapsed is “unreasonably prolonged”, which means consideration of Leeks’ criminal culpability “unduly difficult”. These tactics failed.

The government also filed a detailed defence of past inquiries, arguing in multiple ways that it had complied with the various articles of the convention. Changes to medical practice meant “the events at Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital are very unlikely to occur again”.

Zentveld disagreed, arguing the changes didn’t go far enough, and the state has failed its duty of care to the vulnerable youngsters at Lake Alice. Zentveld’s complaint said: “It was not enough to conduct superficial investigations and pretend these were isolated incidents and the children not credible witnesses. Nor was it enough just to make ex gratia payments to victims, while claiming no liability, when many of them wanted those responsible to be held accountable.”

(A Newshub Nation investigation, aired last year, indicated there may well have been grounds for prosecution for alleged offences committed at Lake Alice.)

In a blistering summary, the UN committee said it was concerned “that despite repeated investigations into the same matter, police acknowledgement of ‘evidence of the application’ and the state party’s acknowledgement before the committee of the seriousness of historic complaints of torture, while admitting the continuing public interest in the matter, the authorities of the state party made no consistent efforts to establish the facts of such a sensitive historical issue involving the abuse of children in state care”.

‘It’s been this way all along’

Mike Ferriss, of Citizens Commission on Human Rights – the Church of Scientology-aligned group that represents Zentveld – has been left scratching his head. He says it appears to be of greater importance for authorities to protect Leeks, the former psychiatrist, and other Lake Alice hospital staff, than to have them prosecuted for alleged crimes of torture.

“It has been this way all along, which is why Leeks was allowed to leave the country in 1979 and take up practice in Melbourne.”

(Leeks wasn’t investigated by the New Zealand Medical Council or the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria after de-registering and surrendering his Australian medical licence. The County Court of Victoria subsequently ordered him to pay $A55,000 in damages to a former patient for sexual assault.)

Ferriss says the best way for the government – politicians and bureaucrats – to get “above” the UN committee decision is to properly investigate Lake Alice, and ensure the perpetrators are held accountable. That way it’ll never happen again “because we’re willing to prosecute the deeds of torture”.

The government is running out of time to respond to the UN committee decision. (Zentveld is convinced it’ll ask for an extension.)

But Zentveld and Richards aren’t waiting for the response. They’ve been contacting foreign governments and international children’s organisations to tell them this country has been found in violation of the UN Convention against Torture.

“We’re the trailblazers,” Zentveld says, adding, “someone had to do it.”

Why? Many victims have committed suicide, and people, including the parents of the dead victims, are sick of waiting for justice, he says.

“Nobody’s explained nothing to them. This is what the Government should be doing now. They need to know why their kids killed themselves.”

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