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New Zealand police charge one staff member over child abuse at Lake Alice psychiatric hospital

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald</span>
Photograph: Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald

New Zealand police have laid child abuse charges against one of the staff members of the notorious Lake Alice institution, where hundreds of former patients have alleged they were tortured and abused as children in the 1970s.

Their investigation has come too late for charges to be brought against the doctor at the centre of the institution, despite police saying there was enough evidence to charge him. Now 92 years old, police said Dr Selwyn Leeks was medically unfit to stand trial.

About 200 people alleged in evidence before New Zealand’s royal commission this year they were tortured and abused by Leeks and others at Lake Alice psychiatric hospital. Leeks has previously denied those allegations and said his use of electro-convulsive shock therapy (ECT) was therapeutic.

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The commission heard evidence from multiple witnesses alleging that Leeks and other staff used ECT without anaesthetic, including on genitals. Many of those testifying to the commission described being electrocuted as punishment for minor misbehaviour. Others allege that Leeks made them electrocute other children. Speaking to the commission, expert witness Dr Barry Parsonson likened the alleged practices to those used by “state organs of terror, namely the Gestapo is a good example”.

The criminal investigation into Lake Alice has been running alongside the royal commission, and police said that their investigation included interviews with former staff of the unit, 63 former patients, and over 46,000 pages of documentary evidence.

Police said on Wednesday that an 89-year-old individual has been charged with wilful ill treatment of a child. They said in a statement that “Police also found sufficient evidence to charge two other former staff members with wilful ill-treatment of a child. However, both those individuals – including 92-year-old former child psychiatrist Selwyn Leeks – are now medically unfit to stand trial.

Related: Victims allegedly tortured by New Zealand psychiatrist fear time is running out for justice

“It is important to note that this finding does not mean Mr Leeks is guilty of the alleged offence – he cannot be charged as he is unable to defend himself in court.”

“Police acknowledge the enormous impact these events have had on the lives of those former patients who were children and young people at Lake Alice in the 1970s, and the frustration of those who have been waiting for us to complete this investigation,” Det Supt Fitzgerald said.

“This operation involved unprecedented mass allegations, with complex legal arguments and expert medical evidence, so it was vital that we undertook a methodical and meticulous approach with thorough consideration of culpability.”

Over the past 50 years, both the police and New Zealand medical authorities had received multiple complaints about Leeks and Lake Alice, but those complaints did not result in censure or criminal charges.

After a settlement between victims and the New Zealand government in 2002, dozens of complainants’ files were forwarded to the police, but only one victim was interviewed, and in 2010, the police announced there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute.

Speaking to the commission in mid-2021, New Zealand police apologised to survivors for that investigation.

“Police did not accord sufficient priority and resources to the investigation of allegations of criminal offending” Fitzgerald said at the time. “This resulted in unacceptable delays in the investigation and meant that not all allegations were thoroughly investigated. The police wish to apologise to the Lake Alice survivors for these failings.”

Hayden Rattray, a lawyer representing Leeks at the royal commission had said: “Leeks has a right to give evidence and to make submissions. But he is, by virtue of his age and cognitive capacity, manifestly incapable of doing either.

“When he was cognitively capable of doing so, [Leeks has] always ardently maintained his innocence,” Rattray said.

Additional reporting by Aaron Smale

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