Lake Alice and the legacy of abuse in state care on Māori

Corazon Miller
Source: 1News

The vast majority of children taken into care in the 20th century were Māori - a cost that became apparent at this month’s Royal Commission of Inquiry.

Advocates now calling for the Crown to do more to redress this collective loss to hapū from our “stolen generation”.

For the last two weeks the public has heard testimony from survivors, witnesses and former staff who were at the Lake Alice Child and Adolescent unit in the 1970s - almost half of whom were Māori.

Their stories of abuse detailed how the trauma at the hands of the state, alongside being disconnected from their culture, has left a mark that is being felt by their children and grandchildren, reports Corazon Miller. 


Donald Ku was born in 1963 in Raetihi - a small town in the Central North Island. His iwi on his mother’s side is Ngāti Maniapoto. On his father’s side he is Tūwharetoa. Today, he is a residential patient at Te Awhina Unit at Whanganui Hospital.

The Lake Alice survivor described how as a young boy he was labelled as having “marked retardation”.

“I hate reading that and seeing that in my notes. I don’t think I was retarded at all; I was just a young boy struggling with being brought up in a hard environment.”

Ku was one of five siblings. His early years were happy.

“I have good memories of those early years with my grandmother,” he told the Royal Commission of Inquiry this month. “She started teaching me a lot about living off the land and looking after our home.”

But as his mother moved away from home, things began to change. And by the time he was seven, he was in foster care.

“This was the start of my life within the system and the start of my suffering in so many different institutions.”

His mother reached out to the authorities for help, but was made to believe the state could do better.

“They believed they were giving us a better life and agreed for them to take us,” he said. “Our family was split up by Social Welfare, and I only ever saw my brother after that.”

He ended up in Lake Alice where, he tells the commission, he was sexually abused and was administered electroconvulsive therapy as punishment.

“Where I really belonged was with my mum and dad - with my whānau. When I was removed from that environment, they took me away from my Māori culture. I wish they had given me to my grandmother. I think my life would have been different if they had.”


Ku was one of the more than 100 Māori boys believed to have been admitted to Lake Alice's child and adolescent unit in the 1970s.

No official roll or records have ever been found but investigators looking into the case estimate the number of children there likely exceeded 300.

Twenty of their stories were heard over the past fortnight. They describe being given electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as punishment.

Some recounted being sexually abused, including one woman who alleged the head of the unit Dr Selwyn Leeks raped her. Others talked about being locked up in isolation.

And while Dr Leeks has often described what he did as necessary treatment - few if any of the former patients had been officially diagnosed.

In fact many experts tended to describe the then-children as having behavioural issues, rather than any type of psychiatric disorder.

Dr Barry Parsonson is a clinical psychologist who has analysed a number of the case files of former Lake Alice patients. He gave evidence as part of this month’s hearings.

“At the very least, the actions of Dr Leeks and the unit staff was an abuse of power and medical authority, an unjustified assault on the human dignity and the rights of the young persons in an inhumane regime of maltreatment that induced fear, emotional and physical harm.”

One of the first to raise the alarm about what was going on was clinical psychologist John Watson, who as part of this month’s hearings gave testimony that highlighted a key number of institutional failures across several agencies, including police and the former Department of Social Welfare.

As a housemaster at Holdsworth School in the 1970s, where a number of the boys were referred from Lake Alice, he had growing concerns around the facility.

“Regardless of how much the boys played up, I didn’t think it was necessary to send them.”,

He grew so worried that after a drive to check on two of the boys he made the call to take them out of Lake Alice, raising the alarm with authorities. No clear action was taken in regards to the unit.

Then, in the mid-1970s, hidden in a young Niuean boy’s drawing was a coded message in his native language.

“Mum, the people have given me electric shock, as well as the paraldehyde injection and it’s painful. I am crying, I am in pain.”

It sparked a series of events that put the controversial use of ECT into the public eye. The growing criticism eventually led to the closure of the unit in 1978 - five years after the alarm bells began to ring.


Almost half a century on a comprehensive inquiry into what went on at Lake Alice has finally taken place, giving survivors a voice while exposing how a care system failed some of society’s most vulnerable.

In the early years it seemed to be an element of fear, and possibly denial, that saw staff turn a blind eye to some of the abuse that was happening.

Brian Stabb worked as a nurse at Lake Alice in the 1970s. He denied ECT was used as punishment, but did express concern about some of what he saw. But he feared speaking out would see him criminally charged.

“I was asked to sign the Official Secrets Act and throughout my time at Lake Alice, I was under the impression that any sort of whistleblowing would result in my prosecution.”

Others, like Denis Hessletine, who worked as a psychiatrist assistant at the unit in 1974, says he had been led to believe that all the children admitted had a psychiatric disorder that warranted treatment.

“My mind’s changed...he might have been perhaps more cunning than we’d ever known.”

But even as it became clear to the public in the mid to late 1970s that there were issues at Lake Alice, it took a long time for any action to happen, and even then it fell short.

The first investigation in 1977 saw the Ombudsman deem ECT treatment in this context “possibly unlawful”. Subsequent police investigations, one in 1977 and another from 2002 to 2010, ended with no charges being laid.

Another one launched in 2018 is still ongoing, with police expected to release a decision in early July on whether charges will be laid.

But with Dr Leeks now in Australia, aged 93, and reportedly no longer mentally or physically fit, it’s unclear how likely this will be.

Civil litigation in the 1990s was plagued by what a lawyer told the Commission was a Crown strategy to “defend, deny and delay”. It eventually ended with a Crown apology and settlement in 2001.

But as the scale of the abuse in care, beyond just Lake Alice grew, survivors began to push for more - taking it to the United Nations which criticised successive governments for failing to properly investigate the torture allegations at Lake Alice.

Their calls met with a promise by Labour in 2017 to establish a Royal Commission of Inquiry to look at all instances of abuse in state and faith-based care from 1950 to 1999 - including Lake Alice.

And this month, as more stories were made public, it was met with a rare admission from both police and the medical council over their failures.

Medical Council deputy chief executive Aleyna Hall acknowledged the pain of all those who experienced abuse. She apologised for the council’s inability to explain why two complaints about Dr Leeks in 1977 and 1999 went nowhere.

“Our job is to protect the public, we are not here to protect doctors. It was a shortcoming of the Medical Council and he should have not been allowed to continue to practice.”

NZ Police director of criminal investigations, Thomas John Fitzgerald, then described how police had failed to accord sufficient priority to its investigation and how it had lost several victim statements.

“The police are committed to assessing policy and how national investigations are resourced and are committed to ensure that this does not happen again,” he says.


An estimated 200,000 children are thought to have been removed from their families into state care between the 1950s and the 1990s - into foster homes, orphanages, psychiatric hospitals and other institutions like the unit at Lake Alice.

Estimates of the number of Māori affected were up to 80 per cent. Today that figure appears to have barely shifted.

The latest Oranga Tamariki data shows around 68 per cent of those children in its care are Māori.

Many former wards of the state have gone on to describe the impact of being taken away from their families and their iwi.

Lake Alice survivor Fred Rawiri told the commission how the state failed to properly consider options within his family - a decision that has haunted him throughout his life.

“I can’t help but think that the rest of my childhood would have turned out differently if I had been allowed to go and live with my family.”

Instead he went into a boys’ home, before he was sent to Lake Alice, where instead of receiving care he was abused.

Lake Alice does represent what many have described as some of the most horrific examples of abuse in state care.

But those who have worked with former wards of state, say the systemic racism that has seen many taken away from their iwi and hapū is still happening today.

Kingi Snelgar works as a barrister, often working with youth, who are themselves, their parents and sometimes their grandparents, former wards of the state.

“The story of abuse in care is directly linked to our colonial history, we know that Māori are more likely to be uplifted, they still are and they are treated differently in care.

“The impact of the care system on the people that I represent is a huge loss of identity, a huge loss of belonging.

Snelgar says that cost on both the individual and the collective can not be measured in numbers.

“It’s the loss of culture, the loss of kaumātua and kuia that can run our marae, the loss of generations from their whakapapa.”

He says acknowledging this helps identify why some of those in the criminal system are there.

“When the state has played a key role in their history, and then their parents’ upbringing, we need to provide a bit more aroha to their situation.”

Other nations, including Australia and Canada, have had separate inquiries that look directly at the indigenous experience - and have acknowledged how their policies resulted in a generation of children taken from their families and lands, and the collective cost this incurs.

David MacDonald is a researcher from Canada who has been observing the Royal Commission of inquiry, says it’s something authorities here could consider looking into.

“There are political and socio-political consequences to removing generations of children from their communities.”

Aaron Smale, a journalist and researcher who has been looking into the experiences of Māori children in state custody, says while the New Zealand context has its differences the end result has been the same.

“When it comes to indigenous children being taken from the state, it’s a common pattern, throughout colonised countries.”

He says despite some progress being made through the inquiry, it’s not clear if the state and the nation as a whole has acknowledged our own stolen generation and the systemic racism that underpinned it.

“We’ve spent the last 20 years kinda denying it,” he says. “I really don’t think we’ve had a reckoning with what that means for Māori and the country as a whole.”

The Royal Commission of Inquiry will be looking at the Māori experience, with a specific investigation on their stories in care. Hearings for this are set down for September.

But as cases after 1999 will be out of the inquiry’s scope, critics question if that will be enough to address the remnants of this colonial legacy that is still impacting children in care today.

Just this week, new video emerged on Newsroom of a boy in state care being shoved to the ground.

It is unclear if he is Māori - and officials have reacted promptly - but it does beg the question of just how much things have changed inside our care system.