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Concerns over electrocution practices at Lake Alice were raised 50 years ago

A former housemaster at a school that once sent pupils to the notorious Lake Alice Child and Adolescent unit has spoken out for the first time about what he saw.

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Psychologist John Watson has spoken for the first time about what happened at Lake Alice, as the inquiry continues its investigation. Source: 1 NEWS

Clinical psychologist John Watson, who worked at Holdsworth School in the 1970s, gave evidence as part of the Royal Commission Inquiry that is currently underway in Auckland.

He described how while he was there in 1973 he had growing concerns about the reasons for why boys were sent to the psychiatric hospital, and the use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

“I was concerned at the reasons for the referrals to Lake Alice,” he said. “I believed misbehaviour of this sort could be managed by the school regardless of how much the boys played up, I didn’t think it was necessary to send them.”

As he grew increasingly worried, Watson made the call to drive down to the unit at Lake Alice to meet with two of the boys he was responsible for, Rangi Wickliffe and Tyrone Marks.

“They appeared to be really scared and told me they had been administered ECT to their heads and electric shocks to their legs, without first receiving anaesthetic.”

He raised his concerns with his superiors back at Holdsworth School and Dr Selwyn Leeks, who maintained the ECT was only being administered as treatment.

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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

Watson believed the claims of the two boys.

“I believed what the kids were telling me,” he said. “I knew them well and when they were telling lies. [What] Dr Leeks was doing to them was completely out of order.”

So he decided to act, driving down to the unit and pulling his two charges out.

“I was that concerned about their safety,” Watson told the Commission.

He later notified police and the department of social work about his concerns but he never heard from authorities.

“Since 1973, I have not been spoken to by police, or any government officials about the complaints. I can recall these events because what happened to the boys made me so angry.

“[But] I only recently learned that despite my complaints, Dr Selwyn continued in his role giving ECT til 1977.”

While the unit was eventually closed, in 1978, no-one person has been held to account. There have been several investigations into the unit, starting in 1977 with an Ombudsman investigation that deemed ECT treatment was “possibly unlawful”.

There were also two police investigations, one in 1977 and another from 2002 to 2010 - both ended with no charges being laid.
Another one, launched in 2018 is still ongoing.

There were also civil litigations in the 1990s that led to a Crown apology and settlement in 2001.

Many of the survivors wondered why Dr Leeks, who moved to Australia not long after the unit closed, has not faced greater scrutiny.

Questions remain if that will ever happen, as his counsel, Hayden Rattray advised the commission this week; “Dr Leeks is neither aware of the matters before the inquiry or cognitively capable of responding to it.”

Fifty years on, Watson says the doctor should have been held to account for his actions ”but that appears to not be the case”.

The legal counsel for the Lake Alice survivors, Frances Joychild QC, says the failure of authorities has left those still alive with a wound that has not healed.

“The responsibility for it lies with the people in power,” she said. “There have been all sorts of forces over the years from all different governments that have tried to suppress it.”