Painful drug administered to youngest known Lake Alice patient

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Warning: This story contains details about unacceptable treatment of young people, including children

A watchdog group has discovered that a former patient of Lake Alice’s pediatric and youth ward was just five years old when he was sent to the infamous psychiatric hospital near Marton.

Lake Alice psychiatric hospital.
Photo: Delivered

He is the youngest known patient on the ward and his medical records indicate that he was given a painful paralyzing drug, probably as punishment.

He arrived at Lake Alice in 1978 after the unit’s chief psychiatrist, Dr Selwyn Leeks, moved to Australia.

Former patients, who were mostly in their teens when they were sent to the ward, recall Leeks and other staff administering electric shocks and the drug paraldehyde as punishment.

Citizens Commission for Human Rights Director Mike Ferriss

Mike Ferris.
Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Mike Ferriss, of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, said it appeared that this continued after Leeks left, including with the five-year-old boy.

“He was given paraldehyde, which seems very odd because it’s a known potent drug and, as we know, was used as a form of behavior control punishment in Lake Alice, so they gave it to this five-year-old.”

The Citizens Commission has spent decades researching Lake Alice, collecting testimonials about the drug’s effects on patients.

“It numbs the body. The person experiences an inability to even walk because it is usually given in the buttocks,” Ferriss said.

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“And it has that horrible chemical smell… That can last for hours — same thing with the numbness. They could barely move as a result of getting this drug.”

Last year, the Royal Commission of Inquiry to Abuse in State Care heard poignant evidence from former Lake Alice patients about their time on the ward.

The man sent there at the age of five has since spoken to Royal Commission investigators. He doesn’t want to be identified.

Other former patients, such as Malcolm Richards, were shocked that someone was given the drug so young.

“That’s just beyond mean, because that hurt like hell. Someone so young… yes.

“I don’t know what other effects it had on your body. I know it hurt terribly,” he said.

“It’s so bad that plastic syringes would melt. That’s why they had to use glass syringes.”

Steve Watt was sent to Lake Alice when he was 15 and 16. He remembered some younger patients, but said most were 12 years old or older.

He was forced to watch another boy get electric shocks, so wasn’t surprised to learn what happened to the five-year-old.

“She [staff] would have learned they could get away with it and they thought there was no comeback.

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“Who Would Believe a Mental Patient?”

Another former patient, Paul Zentveld, won a UN torture case for his treatment at Lake Alice.

That led to a third police investigation and charges against a former nurse, John Richard Corkran, who is awaiting trial.

Leeks, who died this year, was considered too unwell to be prosecuted.

Zentveld said he couldn’t remember anyone who was only five years old on the ward when he was there in the mid-1970s, but he’d found evidence of very young patients ever since.

“We went through our own trauma and hell every day there, so I wouldn’t have really noticed.”

Ferriss said the Citizens Commission recently confirmed when the man sent to Lake Alice as a five-year-old was there, and what happened to him when it got his medical records.

He was not the only younger child to endure torturous punishment at the hands of the staff.

“It is truly appalling that a very small child has undergone such treatment.

“We found that the youngest person we know to get ECT [electro-convulsive therapy] was eight years old.

“If you look at an eight-year-old and their body size, that’s a little kid to get ECT.”

The Royal Commission’s report on the Lake Alice unit could be out later this year.

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The Royal Commission confirmed to RNZ that former patients had come forward since the Lake Alice hearing last year.

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