AUSTRALIA — The article was originally published in Australia's The Age, March 13, 1999. It is reprinted here with permission.
A psychiatrist exposed for using electric shock therapy on young children and facing a class action by 120 former patients is continuing to practise in Melbourne.
The patients claim they were punished with shock therapy for minor disciplinary breaches and given deliberately painful injections, leaving them with emotional problems and physical injuries.
Dr. Selwyn Leeks moved to Australia in 1977 after an inquiry in New Zealand found that a 15-year-old boy who had electro-convulsive therapy, or ECT, was dealt a grave injustice. No legal consent had been given for the treatment.
Lawyers for the 120 former patients of Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital, near Palmerston North, are seeking up to $35million compensation from the New Zealand Government. They say that between 1970 and 1977 their clients, then aged between 10 and 16, were given unmodified ECT — shock therapy without anaesthetic or muscle relaxants — and painful injections as punishment for things like smoking, talking back or masturbating. Some patients also were allegedly sexually abused at the hospital. Dr. Leeks established the Lake Alice Hospital child and adolescent unit in 1972 and ran it until 1977.
An Insight investigation has found that Dr. Leeks in 1986 worked as a child psychiatrist at the Melbourne Children’s Court clinic. A staff member who worked there at the time recalled that Dr. Leeks had “unusual ideas” and that staff were relieved when he left. The staff member said it would not have been possible for Dr. Leeks to use ECT at the time.
It is believed the New Zealand Medical Council is considering a complaint against Dr. Leeks. A spokeswoman refused to confirm or deny this. Dr. Leeks, when contacted by Insight, said: “That’s the way it’s gone. I have been advised not to say anything about it.” He suggested contacting his lawyers, Rainey Collins Wright in Wellington, but Mr. Chris James, of the firm, said: “I am sorry, I don’t discuss with the media my client’s affairs” and hung up. Dr. Leeks has a practice in Cheltenham and has specialised in child psychiatry.
A former patient, Mr. Stephen McMahon*, who now lives in Melbourne told Insight that, under Dr. Leeks’ guidance, he and six other boys gave shock therapy to a homosexual boy who had made advances toward them. The boy was knocked out with ECT on his genitals. Mr. Chris Zaal, another former patient, says he was homosexual and confirmed that he was given ECT on his penis.
Mr. McMahon’s Melbourne solicitor, Mr. David Miles, of Corrs Chambers Westgarth, said Mr. McMahon would be joining the New Zealand class action when proceedings were launched in the next few weeks.
Many of the patients were under welfare supervision or were state wards when they were admitted to Lake Alice Hospital in the 1970s. Some appear to have been placed there due to their delinquent behavior. Dr. Leeks in 1977 told a newspaper: “Some of these children do not need to be in hospital, but apart from the child unit, there has been nowhere for them.”
When the allegations were aired in New Zealand in 1997, the former NZ Health Minister, Mr. Bill English, said he had no reason to disbelieve the patients.
Dr. Leeks was not investigated by the NZ Medical Council in 1977 because no complaints were made against him. The Victorian Medical Practitioners Board was not aware of Dr. Leeks’s background when contacted by The Age. He was also able to get special registration in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan between 1982 and 1984 to enable him to work in a public psychiatric centre.
Dr. Leeks left New Zealand in 1977 after two government inquiries, one of which found a 15-year old boy was given ECT six times against his will, without his consent and without the knowledge and consent of his parents or welfare officers. It also found he was detained unlawfully at the hospital.
Another inquiry, by a magistrate, rejected claims that ECT was used as a punishment against a troublesome 13-year-old boy from a Polynesian island, but found there was no express authority for the treatment. In a letter about the case at the time, Dr. Leeks said the boy behaved like an “uncontrollable animal.”
The class action is expected to be filed in New Zealand’s High Court in the next two weeks by Grant Cameron Associates in Christchurch. Mr. Grant Cameron said in the 100 statements made by patients to date, all refer to being threatened with ECT and 70 claim they had ECT. “Uniformly, the complaint has been (that) ECT was used as punishment,” he says. “Nobody has said they believed they had a medical condition that justified ECT.”
The patients are seeking exemplary damages and, for those eligible, compensatory damages. Mr. Cameron said his clients were severely affected by their experiences. “There are some who are leading seemingly normal lives but still complain of nightmares and all sorts of fears and anxieties,” he said.
Nursing notes, medical records, and statements by former patients appear to confirm claims that ECT and the injection, paraldehyde — a sedative and anti-convulsive drug — were used as punishment. For instance, in March, 1977, a nurse wrote: “Caught out of bounds smoking after school. paraldehyde 1cc i/m (intramuscular) given as deterrent.”
Notes for another child in 1972: “This lad has not benefited from ECT at all. Will still take off for the toilet or any place to hide so he can smoke and when reprimanded will get very sullen.”
Insight has spoken to or seen statements from nine former Lake Alice patients. Their memories of electro-convulsive therapy and threats of its use are identical.
When the allegations were aired by the documentary, 20/20 on NZ television in 1997, the then Health Minister, Mr. English, expressed horror and said the Government “cannot be seen to be hiding behind a wall of legal complexities” in resolving the issues.