Thursday, July 05, 2007

Zombie' patients tell of cruelty

`Zombie' patients tell of cruelty

HAYDON DEWES - The Dominion Post | Friday, 29 June 2007
Sexual abuse, violence, humiliation and cruelty played a daily part in the lives of psychiatric patients, a harrowing report has revealed.

The voices of about 400 former patients have been recorded by a confidential forum, chaired by former principal Family Court judge Patrick Mahony, painting a grim picture of abuse in state-run institutions from the 1940s till 1992.

The Government acknowledged the accuracy of the report yesterday and did not rule out making apologies or paying compensation.

But it is treading carefully as it weighs up the potential costs of doing so.

However, the findings are expected to bolster legal action planned by about 230 former patients, starting late this year.

Releasing the report yesterday, Judge Mahony said there was "potency" about the common themes that emerged from the experiences of unconnected people in different places at different times.

Patients from 53 hospitals or clinics, including Porirua Hospital, Lake Alice Hospital, near Marton, and Levin's Kimberley Hospital, spoke of being sexually abused by patients or staff. Punishment was meted out through violence, electroconvulsive therapy and heavy medication.

They also detailed highly regimented daily routines, crowded dormitories, dirty and smoky day rooms and of a lack of privacy for using toilets and bathing.

"Many used the word `zombie' to describe how they felt," Judge Mahony said.

"It was an atmosphere pervaded by a sense of hopelessness in which they felt trapped."

Daily routines were degrading and humiliating, the report says.

Patients told of being lined up naked and hosed down before showering and being made to bathe in dirty, cold water. Some talked of poor sanitation and of housing infested with rats and cockroaches.

Former institution staff also came forward, with some defending their behaviour as being in tune with the "out of sight, out of mind" attitudes of the day. Others spoke of trying to stop abuse, but of being stonewalled by senior staff - and even reprimanded and intimidated. Some told of patients being sterilised without consent.

The confidential forum was set up in 2004 as a wave of grievances emerged after the Government paid compensation to former Lake Alice patients two years earlier.

A former Porirua Hospital patient is to have her allegations of mistreatment 50 years ago heard in the High Court at Wellington in October. She will be the first of about 230 former patients from the same hospital fighting to have their cases heard.

Judge Mahony said the forum was not an attempt to sidestep compensation, which remained an option.

But he said most simply wanted an apology from the Government for abuse that was "deeply humiliating and demeaning, often taking a life-long toll".

Health Minister Pete Hodgson said the Government would consider both options but had to carefully weigh up each. Compensation could be costly both for the Crown and for litigants, who would also have to relive their experiences. Deciding what and who to apologise for would also be problematic.

"Some people ... thought they were doing their best in the absence of knowledge and changed values that we now have."

Attorney-General Michael Cullen said the priority was to find ways former patients could get closure and satisfaction in a respectful and non-adversarial way. How that would be achieved was still an open question.

Meanwhile, the Government is likely to extend the forum process to cover anyone institutionalised between 1940 and 1992, not just former psychiatric patients.

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