“An uncontrollable animal” – that’s the way Dr Selwyn Leeks once described teenager Hake Halo who was given electric shocks as punishment for bad behaviour.
Halo was just 13 when he was sent to the Lake Alice Child and Adolescent Unit in 1975 for what was deemed an ongoing history of bad behaviour.
During his nine months at he unit Halo was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) numerous times – a torture that was so severe his body would lift from the bed, despite staff holding him down, until he passed out.
“It was really painful,” he recalls. “The pain is just like being hit by a sledgehammer on the head.”
Today, as Halo gives evidence during the Royal Commission of Inquiry’s Lake Alice Child and Adolescent Unit hearing in Auckland, he had a simple message to send back to the man who hurt him all those years ago.
“An uncontrollable animal … I just return it back to him, he’s just talking about himself.”
Nearly 300 children, some as young as 8, were admitted to the unit between 1972 and 1978. It’s believed there may well be a further 113 children who attended but the paperwork has long been lost.
Children at the unit were subject to physical and sexual abuse, electrocuted without any muscle relaxants or anaesthetic and given painful paraldehyde injections as punishment.
During Halo’s time there he tried to send a message to his mother by drawing a stick figure with a smiley face – but added a secret message in Niuean telling her what was happening. It didn’t help and the punishments continued.
He was too scared to tell anyone else and children who did try to run away were brought back by police who didn’t believe their stories.
Halo was born in Niue and moved to New Zealand with his parents (his biological grandparents) when he was 5 years old.
He couldn’t speak a word of English and was moved through several schools for what was deemed bad behaviour, despite not being able to understand what was going on.
In one case he was sent out of the classroom for not singing properly. Scared and trying to get back into the locked classroom he began banging on the door but ended up accidentally smashing a glass panel on it.
After that he was deemed a violent child and a notice was sent to his parents saying he was being put in St Johns psychiatric hospital.
After his father died, he got into trouble at school and was sent to Owairaka Boys Home before being admitted to the Lake Alice Child and Adolescent Unit in 1975 before being move to Lake Alice.
He says ECT was a punishment that was dished out for numerous things.
He clearly remembers his first time, which came out of the blue.
“My name was called from the lounge and I just came out to the person who called.”
“He said come with me and I just followed him without knowing what was going to happen.”
He was taken upstairs and put on a bed.
“That’s when they put the electrodes on my head and next minute I just woke up because I was knocked out without feeling anything that time.”
The next time Halo was called into the room was far worse.
Dr Leeks wet the ends of the electrode pads before placing them on the teen’s temples.
“I thought it was going to be the same thing as before but then I started feeling funny, the way the person was looking.
“I asked him is it going to be painful and he said ‘yes it is’ so I told him I don’t want it, please I don’t want it … He said ‘sorry mate,’…you’re just going to have to do it.”
“I was crying my eyes out at that time. I said ‘well, if it hurts I don’t want it’ but he just took no notice. That’s when he put it on and put the mouth guard in.
“I was thankful for that mouth guard because … without the mouth guard the person would bite his tongue off.”
Along with the pain Halo described the feeling of being shocked, saying his body would repeatedly lift up off the bed until he was unconscious.
“When they turned it on I can feel myself actually sitting all the way up, your body is off the bed. They are holding you down, that’s when you fall back down and you are crying and crying … He turns it back on again and it goes on until you’re knocked out, that’s when it stops.”
Afterwards the boys would feel dazed and confused.
He said the other children in the unit could always tell when someone was being given ECT.
“You could hear the screams from upstairs coming downstairs to us … You could hear them screaming.”
Halo also described being given paraldehyde injections for misbehaving.
“Paraldehyde is like another way of giving us a hiding, the way I see it, but using the injection. It is painful, it is bad, the pain.”
He said children would often emerge crying from having the injection, with their pants still down and swaying from side to side.
He said the injection was given in the buttocks and it was difficult to walk or sit down for at least half an hour because of the pain.
“I even (got) it for laughing my head off, for having too much fun”.
Halo said he believes the treatments he received at Lake Alice had had a role to play in him struggling to control his temper later in life – something that has cost him several jobs.
The Inquiry earlier heard there were numerous complaints from children, parents, teachers and other people about what was happening at the unit during the 1970s but nothing was ever really done. In one case a magistrate went as far as to call Halo a liar for his allegations.
However, the Government eventually acknowledged the torture in the early 2000s when it issued a written apology and paid compensation to nearly 200 survivors. That compensation still remains open to survivors who come forward today.
Leeks’ lawyer Hayden Rattray said the 92-year-old was no longer in a position to meaningfully engage in the inquiry and was not even aware of the hearing. He suffers from numerous medical conditions including prostrate cancer, chronic kidney dysfunction and possibly dementia.
Crown Secretariat Karen Feint said the crown was not at the hearing to defend the position but rather “to listen, to learn and to change”.
“The Lake Alice Child and Adolescent Unit represents a dark chapter in the nation’s history. The Crown acknowledges terrible things happened at Lake Alice that should never have happened to any child.”
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