Lake Alice NZ children administered shocks to another child
the hospital that became a childhood hell
By BILL BIRNBAUER
Leslie Kiriona, who was given shock treatment as a patient there in
1973. Picture: JOHN DONEGAN
The New Zealand Government has apologised to 95 people who were
repeatedly treated with electric shock “aversion therapy” in the
1970s while under the care of a psychiatrist now practising in
The formal apology, by New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and
Health Minister Annette King, comes with a $5.3 million pay-out to
settle a class action launched by the group, all former “patients”
of Lake Alice Hospital, near Palmerston North, north of Wellington.
While at the hospital in the 1970s, the “patients”, aged between
eight and 16, were given electric shocks and painful injections for
minor breaches of discipline, and lived in a state of “extreme fear
and hopelessness”, according to former New Zealand High Court judge
Sir Rodney Gallen.
He said: “Statement after statement indicates that the children
concerned lived in a state of terror during the period they spent at
Lake Alice. All were in need of understanding, love and
compassionate care. That is not what they received at Lake Alice.”
Most were taken to Lake Alice Hospital because their parents or
state carers could not cope with their unruly behavior.
Once at the hospital, a sprawling mental institution with
dormitories, a school and a maximum-security facility for the
criminally insane, they came under the care of Dr Selwyn Leeks, a
tall, quietly spoken man who once described electro-convulsive
therapy (ECT) as “fairly definitive treatment”.
Dr Leeks has a practice in the bayside suburb of Cheltenham. He
established the 46-bed child and adolescent unit at Lake Alice
Hospital in 1972, but left in the late 1970s after two inquiries
into his use of ECT.
A Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria spokeswoman said the board
was concerned, and would investigate to see if further action was
Electro-convulsive therapy, during which an electric shock is
administered to the brain, normally is used with anaesthetics and
muscle relaxants on patients suffering severe depression or
psychiatric conditions. But at Lake Alice it was used without
anaesthetics or relaxants and was given to the head and other parts
of the body.
Sir Rodney said that ECT was “in constant use” at Lake Alice
hospital – administered on children as a punishment for unacceptable
behavior, low school grades or running away.
“The ECT was plainly delivered as a means of inflicting pain in
order to coerce behavior,” he says. “ECT delivered in circumstances
such as those I have described could not possibly be referred to as
therapy, and when administered to defenceless children can only be
described as outrageous in the extreme.”
Statements by the former patients, which Sir Rodney accepted as
true, showed they had received ECT on their heads, legs and even
their genitals in cases where they had been accused of unacceptable
sexual behavior. The statements referred to two incidents in which
children had administered ECT to other children under the
supervision of staff.
Dr Leeks came to Melbourne in 1978 and was the director of child
psychiatry at a child guidance clinic. In 1986, he worked briefly as
a part-time psychiatrist at the Children’s Court outpatients’
Dr Leeks refused to comment on the New Zealand apology and pay-out.
He still faces separate court action by two former Lake Alice
Last week, the 20/20 television news program in New Zealand showed
Dr Leeks telling a former Lake Alice resident with a hidden camera
that the electric shocks were “a form of aversion therapy”. When the
children administered shocks to another child it was “a behavioral
One of the victims involved in the class action, Melbourne resident
Kevin Banks, told The Sunday Age he was relieved the case was over,
and welcomed the apology. However, he said he still had migraines
and nightmares, and relived his experiences daily. He could not work
and still suffered throbbing pain on his temples, arms and legs
where the electrodes were clasped more than 20 years ago.
He estimated he received more than 100 ECT treatments, as well as
pain-inducing injections of the sedative paraldehyde.
Sir Rodney described paraldehyde as a particularly unpleasant and
extremely painful injection that was used to punish children.
“There can be no doubt that paraldehyde was used by staff members on
their own initiative, without any instruction from medical
personnel, whenever the staff member concerned wished to impose a
punishment and, on the basis of some of the statements, it seems to
have been administered on quite a capricious basis.”
Other punishments were being kept naked in solitary confinement, and
threats of being placed with criminally insane adults. Several
former patients complained about sexual abuse from other inmates.
Sir Rodney said that perhaps the most appalling story involved a 15-
year-old boy who claimed he was locked in a wooden cage with a
seriously deranged adult.
“He describes a situation where, for a considerable period, he
crouched in the corner being pawed by the particular inmate,
screaming to be released and unable to get out or to get away from
the contact to which he had been exposed.”
Sir Rodney said that even those not subjected to behavior
modification lived in terror because of the random nature in which
ECT was given.
He had read all 95 statements and had interviewed 41 of the
claimants in order to determine the amount paid to each claimant.
“Claimant after claimant indicated that on one day in the week
children were gathered together in the day room where they sat
waiting for those to be selected to whom ECT would be applied. Both
boys and girls spoke of young children lying in a foetal position on
the floor in attempts to avoid being taken up for ECT, and of
children who, in tears and through sheer fear, had lost control of
their bodily functions before any application had taken place.
Whether they received ECT or not, they all lived in fear of
“There were allegations, which I accept, that it (the ECT machine)
was brought into the dining room and placed in a prominent position
in order to encourage children to eat their meals if they were
reluctant to do so.”
Complaints were made to police, welfare officers and probation
officers, but they were not believed. “There was literally no way
out for them,” Sir Rodney said.
An investigation by The Age in 1999 found that, in December 1975, Dr
Leeks wrote to New Zealand welfare authorities about his use of
shock treatment on a 13-year-old boy from the Polynesian island of
He said the boy appeared “to be a living memorial to the
inadequacies of the immigration system in New Zealand. He behaved
very much like an uncontrollable animal, and immediately stole a
considerable amount of money and stuffed it into his rectum.
Incidentally, the amount of money which he had pushed into his
rectum was retrieved along with a considerable amount of interest,
which will be forwarded when he returns to you”.
An investigation by an ombudsman in the late 1970s found that a 15-
year-old boy was given ECT against his will and without the
knowledge of his parents or welfare officers. This might have been
contrary to the law and was a grave injustice, the investigation
In July 1977, Dr Leeks told Wellington’s Dominion newspaper that his
unit was full of murderers, rapists and liars. He had not used ECT
in a punitive way, and defended it as a useful treatment when a
patient was dangerous.
In a statement, Prime Minister Helen Clark said that, whatever the
medical practice was at the time, “what occurred to these young
people was unacceptable by any standard, in particular the
inappropriate use of electric shocks and injections”.
“The people involved were young – some of them children – and many
from troubled backgrounds, including wards of the state,” she
said. “Some were sent to the child’s adolescent unit primarily
because there was nowhere else for them to go.”