Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists apologises for Lake Alice abuse, calls for trauma redress system

The RANZCP acknowledged that victims' attempts to raise the alarm were repeatedly ignored.
The RANZCP acknowledged that victims' attempts to raise the alarm were repeatedly ignored. Photo credit: Public Domain

A warning - some of the details in this story are harrowing and could upset some readers.    

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) has issued a formal apology for the horrific child and adolescent abuse at the Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital in the 1970s, alongside a call for the Government to develop a trauma-informed redress system.   

The abuse at Lake Alice is well-documented and the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care inquiry was released in December 2022.   

Torture and sexual, physical, emotional and psychological abuse of over 100 survivors of the adolescent unit of Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital in the 1970s was spelt out in a nearly 500-page report.

The case study report said the unit, which was set up for young people with mental distress or illness, became a place of abuse, particularly at the hands of psychiatrist, Dr Selwyn Leeks.  

He used electric shock treatment and painful drugs, such as paraldehyde, not as a treatment, but as a punishment, which was abusive and unjustified even by the standards of the day.  

The report said that in the almost eight years the unit operated, Leeks and the staff at Lake Alice inflicted, or oversaw, serious abuse - some amounting to torture - in what quickly became a culture of mistreatment, physical violence, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect, threats, degradation and other forms of humiliation.  

The RANZCP has called it a "shameful chapter in our nation's history".

"To all those impacted by the horrific abuses conducted at the Lake Alice Child and Adolescent Unit, specifically the torturous actions carried out and directed by psychiatrist Selwyn Leeks: we are sorry," a RANZCP representative said at Wharerata at Massey University, Palmerston North.  

"To survivors, to their whānau, and to those who are descendants of those who suffered and who did not survive, the RANZCP offers a full and sincere apology. You were failed."  

The RANZCP acknowledged that victims' attempts to raise the alarm were repeatedly ignored.  

"We know that the Ngā Wairiki and Ngāti Apa peoples suffered and that their uri continue to feel the impact. We know many agencies repeatedly failed you," they said.   

They also acknowledged members of the RANZCP allowed Leeks to escape proper investigation and punishment, through action and inaction.   

"Your trust was broken. We are committed to people receiving the best mental health care, guided by evidence and expertise."  

The drawn-out nature of the investigation into the horrific abuse at Lake Alice has compounded the trauma for many survivors.  

"The longer this is dragged out, the more we're hurting because it's just tiring. It's draining. It's frustrating," said Lake Alice survivor Malcolm Richards in 2022.   

While at Lake Alice, Richards was diagnosed with schizophrenia and administered drugs and given electric shocks, often without anaesthetic, including to his genitals.

The after-effects continued and Richards struggled to hold down work because he suffers from memory loss.  

The RANZCP said they did what they could when they could, but admitted it was not good enough.  

"Since the 1990s, RANZCP has been vocal in calling for the investigation of the many allegations of Leeks' abuse. In the absence of any finding or action against Leeks, the RANZCP was unable to act."  

It was only until the 2022 report emerged that the RANZCP rescinded Leek's fellowship.   

"We acknowledge that for many, these steps came too late. For our organisation's part in this failure to bring Leeks to justice at the earliest opportunity, we again offer our unconditional apology.

"There must never be a repeat of Lake Alice."  

They said one of the reasons Leeks was able to get away with the abuse for so long was the isolation in which he worked.   

"Now, psychiatrists work transparently and collaboratively, in teams, with supervision, and ongoing training and development," the RANZCP said.   

In a press release about the apology, the RANZCP said that the horrors of Lake Alice mean we "owe it to survivors to face the impact head-on" and as such they "support the development of the independent trauma-informed redress system, Puretumu Torowhānui". 

Puretumu Torowhānui would be an independent Crown entity open to all survivors of abuse in State and faith-based care.  

The Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry said, "properly designed, it would be survivor-focused, trauma-informed and accessible to all survivors".  

"We urge the New Zealand Government to implement this as a priority," the RANZCP said.   

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