A new podcast delves into the atrocities that took place at the Lake Alice Child and Adolescent Unit in the 1970s and the failure of successive governments to properly investigate or hold anyone accountable. 

Researched, written and narrated by journalist Aaron Smale (Ngāti Porou), The Lake explores the state’s response to what happened at Lake Alice, the lack of reckoning for those responsible, and the lasting impact it’s had on survivors. 

Smale has spent years investigating Lake Alice’s history, and building trust with a number of the people who were abused there as children. He and podcast producers Melody Thomas and Kirsten Johnstone have produced an extraordinarily powerful documentary that allows survivors to tell their own stories – and these survivors have amazing stories to tell. 

The podcast lays bare the suffering of Lake Alice’s victims, but it is also testament to their strength. In particular, the central stories of two childhood friends, Rangi Wickliffe and Tyrone Marks, show how they held onto their sense of identity and pride under near-impossible conditions, and how they used a black sense of humour to hold on to glimmers of hope in the darkness. 

At the centre of the abuse claims is the unit’s former lead psychiatrist Dr Selwyn Leeks, now 92 and living in Melbourne. Under his care, children sent to Lake Alice lived in terror of the shock treatment used as punishment. Children were living in the same institution as criminally insane paedophiles and suffered abuse from adult patients and staff. In 2019 New Zealand was found in breach of the UN Convention against Torture for not properly investigating. 

Smale says the lasting damage of these experiences on the survivors has been immense. 

“For 50 years multiple agencies have failed the children of Lake Alice. The survivors of Lake Alice have never seen justice and it’s doubtful they ever will. What happened at the adolescent unit at Lake Alice – and in many other institutions – is one of the worst examples of human rights abuse in New Zealand. Yet no one has ever been held accountable.”

The abuse is now part of a Royal Commission of Inquiry, with findings expected later this year. Police are also investigating. The Lake explores what has happened and questions why it has taken so long to have an inquiry. 

The seven-part series was produced by Stuff and Popsock media, and supported by NZ On Air. It’s available now at www.stuff.co.nz/thelake.  WARNING: Contains graphic and disturbing content, discretion is advised.