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Lake Alice: a personal journey

Written by Rosemary Thomson

This is an excerpt of Rosemary's personal story. It has been republished from Newsroom. Click here to read the full article:

Rosemary Thomson still feels the effects of her time being incarcerated at Lake Alice Hospital's child and adolescent unit. Her story is part of a disturbing scar on New Zealand's health and welfare history.

In 1976, I was in my first year at secondary school. I was in the top streamed class; I was the joint junior swimming champion; and I was fifth in the junior cross country. I had never been in any trouble at school or with the police and I had never had any physical or mental health issues.

On September 30, 1976, a few days after the school cross country race, I was home from school with my mother and in bed with a sore throat. A police constable came into my room and asked me a number of personal questions, which at the time I thought very inappropriate. After about half an hour, he left. About 2pm, a different police constable together with a man I know now to be the Youth Liaison Officer came to the house. The constable grabbed me, twisted my arm up my back and frog-marched me to our family car and pushed me into the back seat. He sat next to me while my father, accompanied by mother, drove.

There had been no discussion about where we were going or why. There certainly had been no medical assessment. I do remember the long journey and recall the long sweeping driveway leading to the institution.

The receptionist took some cursory details and I was led down a bleak corridor and flung through an open cell door. The door was then locked behind me. I remember sitting on the floor thinking “this is going to be a long journey from here”.

That was my introduction to the now notorious Lake Alice Child & Adolescent Unit.

As the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care and in the Care of Faith-based Institutions is now under way it is timely to review the regime at the Lake Alice Child & Adolescent Unit and the legal proceedings brought against Dr Selwyn Robert Leeks, the psychiatrist in charge.

The adolescent unit

Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital, located in the Rangitikei District between Whanganui and Palmerston North, was opened in August 1950 under the provisions of the Mental Defectives Act 1911. It was an adult psychiatric facility which also housed, from 1966, the National Secure Unit for the criminally insane.

Leeks, a former pupil of Auckland Grammar School was for a time in the 1960s attached to the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago. He obtained a Diploma in Psychological Medicine from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of London in 1969 and a Diploma of Child Psychiatry in 1971. In January 1971 Leeks began working for the Palmerston North Hospital Board.

The Adolescent Unit was opened in 1972 within the grounds of Lake Alice Hospital. Dr Sydney Pugmire was at the time Medical Superintendent. Leeks was seconded to the Department of Health to run it. According to Leeks, the unit was formed to deal with the increasing number of highly disturbed and anti-social adolescents who were being placed in the Lake Alice Hospital or for whom places were being sought.

Leeks was in a unique position. He was employed by the Palmerston North Hospital Board. Lake Alice Hospital was controlled by the Department of Health. Dr Pugmire advised that he had a written direction not to involve himself in clinical matters in the Adolescent Unit. It was therefore not under the effective control of the Hospital Board, which was Leeks’ employer, and also did not come under Dr Pugmire’s jurisdiction in the normal way. Leeks was effectively not accountable.

The Adolescent Unit started with 12 beds, but by June 1977 it was catering for 46 children – 36 boys and 10 girls aged between 8 and 16 years. The majority of the children were in the Adolescent Unit because of family problems, expulsion from schools and what was referred to as “character disorders”.

I was taken down a dingy hallway and thrown into what resembled a prison cell with bars on the window and a heavy metal door that was locked with a key.

I was taken to the Child and Adolescent Unit on the Monday four days after my arrival. I had had no contact with any doctor at that point.

I requested to see Dr Leeks, head of the unit, so that I could tell him that there had been a terrible mistake. When I met with him and his sidekick psychologist Victor Seoterik, he assured me there was no mistake and that I was not wanted by my parents.

At that stage, I was utterly terrified and wondered how a place like this could exist in the 1970s. At that stage I had not realised the full extent of the atrocities being carried out by Leeks.

Soon enough the other teenagers, particularly the boys started telling me what happens at the unit. I was already terrified but now realised the seriousness of the situation I was in and wondered if I would ever be able to get out.

Between 1972 and 1977, over 400 children passed through the Adolescent Unit for varying periods. While some were referred on medical advice by their parents, the majority were placed by state agencies.


I was correct, it has been a long journey. I was not at the adolescent unit for a lengthy period but the memories of what I was subjected to and what I saw and heard, remain.

The entire time I was at the unit, I was so fearful I could hardly breathe, my chest was so tight. The overriding atmosphere in the unit was sheer terror and helplessness.

I realised I had to get some sort of communication happening with my parents before Leeks could mislead them.

I tried writing but the letters were opened and given to Leeks.

I realised I would have to speak to my parents by phone. I prevailed upon a nurse who each night batted me away with the same excuse, that he had to seek permission from Leeks for a phone call out.

Finally, one night the nurse asked if I had permission from Leeks. "Of course,” I said. So on that basis he dialled the number and stood there while I spoke.

I was so emotional I could barely speak, but knew I had to get a message to my mother. The nurse then grabbed the phone off me.

The next day when my mother informed Leeks she was taking me home, he replied that I had done a good job “manipulating and conning” them.

I consider this phone call saved me and was nothing short of a miracle.

I spent a total of eight days at the unit. The experience has left a permanent impact. There is not a single day I don’t think about it.

I was one of the fortunate survivors. I attended university, obtained a law degree and practised. The stigma of Lake Alice was always there. I avoided sharing about what happened to anyone but when I did, I always regretted it.

My life, however ,did work out and I have had a successful and satisfying personal and professional life. I was one of those who reached a settlement with the Crown and received a letter of apology from the then Prime Minister.

As to the stigma, it may well remain but I no longer care.

This article is not intended to be about my story. I am simply one of the survivors, probably one of the luckiest. Each survivor has had their own difficult journey.

Without accountability however there will not be closure for the survivors.

I therefore pose the question, will Leeks ever be held accountable?

The Royal Commission of Inquiry is due to provide an interim report by the end of December 2020 and a final report with recommendations by January 3, 2023. By the latter date, Leeks will be 93 years old.


About Rosemary:

Rosemary practices as a barrister specialising in criminal and mental health law.

At the age of 13, she was incarcerated in the Child & Adolescent Unit at Lake Alice Hospital under the control of Dr Selwyn Leeks. She was held in custody and witnessed other children being subject to ECT and other degrading and inhumane treatment. After her release she returned to school. The effects of her time at the unit however continue today. In 2002, Rosemary received a written apology from the Prime Minister as well as a confidential financial settlement. She has never been diagnosed or treated for any mental health issues. Rosemary considers herself a survivor.



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