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Abuse survivor wrote cry for help to his mum in cartoons he drew while at Lake Alice

“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.”

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The rural facility with a maximum security unit was located in the Manawatū-Whanganui district, just 10 minutes from the town of Bulls. Source: 1 NEWS

These words were 13-year-old Hake Halo’s - a cry for help. Hidden, in plain sight in a drawing of a smiling stick figure - his message revealing the extent of the harrowing treatment hundreds of children were subjected to at Manawatu's notorious Lake Alice child and adolescent unit in the 1970s.

“I felt that this was the only way I could let my mum know what was being done to me,” he said. “I had to do this six times before she got the message.”

It was a message, that once made public, alongside a series of other complaints, sparked an investigation into the unit and saw it eventually shut down in 1978.

This story of his years locked away in this unit opened the Royal Commission Inquiry into the unit that got underway today. The hearings, set down for two weeks, will look into what went on at the unit, which was open from 1972 to 1978.

He is just one of the more than 300 thought to have been committed to the unit at Lake Alice, subjected to what even the Crown today acknowledges was torture, and abuse at the hands of the state.

Lead counsel assist Andrew Molloy told the inquiry while there have been numerous attempts to look at what happened there, this was the first comprehensive look at the “full picture”.

“Their voices have never been heard collectively by us as a society.”

For Halo, the opportunity is something he felt was important to ensure no other child went through what he did.

He describes first being taken to Lake Alice as a young teen. No-one in his family were aware that it was anything other than a school, designed to help struggling youth than himself.

“There was nothing saying they were taking me to a psychiatric school,” he said.

His first impression on arriving: “This looks like a prison.”

Sometime after being admitted to the unit he recalls being taken up a flight of stairs.

“They did not ask me any questions or explain anything to me. They just put me on the bed.”

Initially he felt nothing, as he was sedated. But Halo says subsequent treatments were delivered as “punishment”

The pain he describes as a sledgehammer to the head.

“The pain is so bad. I can feel myself actually sitting up, your body is off the bed, arms up front, straining to free your arms,” he said. “But they are holding you down. They turn it off, that’s when you fall back, and you are crying and crying.

“Then he turns it back on.”

Halo says this continued over and over again till he was knocked out. It was not until a year later that he was finally released from the facility.

And while today, he says his faith and his community has helped him, the damage has been long term, as he struggles to control his temper and emotions, which has posed difficulties over the years. 

Crown secretariat Karen Feint says justice has been a long time coming for the Children of Lake Alice.

“The Crown acknowledges terrible things that happened should never have happened to any child... that abuse suffered was completely unacceptable.”

Some survivors are still calling for someone to be held to account.

But with unit head Dr Selwyn Leeks deemed no longer mentally fit at age 93... and a number of survivors now dead, the fear is this inquiry has come too late for them.

The hearings are set to continue for at least two weeks.