Warning: This story contains abuse details that some readers may find disturbing.
The sister of a disabled woman has described the public care institution her younger brother lived in for decades as “hell” and her devastation upon learning of the physical abuse and neglect her sister suffered.
Irene Priest suffered brain damage at birth and at the age of six was placed in the Kimberley Center in Levin where she lived until the age of 48, when the center closed in 2004.
There she became a ward of the state.
Sitting next to Irene, who is mute, her sister Margaret Priest was the first of 23 survivors or their whānau to speak at a public hearing in Auckland examining the use of restraint and restraint and the resulting abuse in mental health and disability care.
“There was no place for Irene to go other than Kimberley and for that she had to be in the care of the state. My parents trusted the state to look after Irene. This it’s not the case.
“I know she was abused in many ways. I also know she would have been abused in ways I didn’t know about. The medical staff knew about the abuse, that didn’t stop the abuse.”
When asked to describe Kimberley Centre, Priest said: “It was just a word, hellhole. She recoiled and she was miserable… she had nothing, not even happiness, not the joy of eating, no love, no decent medical care and [she was] abused.”
Priest said 30 years of her sister’s medical records were missing, leaving only the years after 1990 recorded.
But she said her sister had been drugged, had all her teeth pulled and was underweight, suffered numerous physical injuries and documented stress.
“She lost about 20 years of her life, there was no quality of life for her at that time.”
Priest patted her sister’s back as she spoke, explaining that she wasn’t sure what Irene understood but it was obvious when she was unhappy or happy.
She said her parents were loath to complain to Kimberley management for fear of reprisals against Irene.
Leaving Kimberley in 2004, Irene went to live in a six-bedroom New Zealand nursing home.
Priest said she felt relieved that her sister could live in a home where residents cooked meals and had a warm living room with carpeted floors.
But in 2013 and again the following year, she discovered carers were physically abusing her sister, leaving her with bruised wrists and carpet burns.
“I would have expected that at some point in Irene’s life, someone or maybe a lot of people would repeatedly apologize,” she said.
“This has not happened at any time in Irene’s life or mine. It has been extremely difficult for our family to heal without an apology.”
The Care Abuse Inquiry said abuse in state care of the disabled, deaf and mentally distressed was overt and systemic.
Lead attorney assisting the commission, Ruth Thomas, said survivors would speak about the medical, psychological and sexual abuse they suffered in state care.
Survivors will talk about their stay at the Kimberley Center in Levin, Templeton Center near Christchurch, Porirua Hospital, Tokanui Hospital near Te Awamutu, Kelston Deaf Education Centre/van Asch Deaf Education Center in Auckland, Homai School and Carrington, Kingseat and Māngere Hospitals in Auckland.
In his opening address to the hearing, Thomas said the stories were just the tip of the iceberg, as many did not survive and are buried in unmarked graves near the institutions in which they lived. .
“It is important for the Royal Commission to understand and for the public of Aotearoa New Zealand to understand that as a nation we have intentionally placed thousands of disabled children, adults and children and adults with of mental distress, in large psychopedic and psychiatric institutions.”
She said the psychopedic institutions were unique in New Zealand – it was where the state housed people with learning disabilities.
People First provides services for people with learning disabilities and its president Kris Roguski was present at the hearing to stand alongside those who testified.
“We speak today because we want to make sure we are not forgotten in this investigation. We are aware that only a few people with learning disabilities have told their story, but we know that many thousands have lived in a institution and its effects.
Thomas said the length of time some people were in state care is a unique part of the evidence that was gathered for the hearing.
”Particularly people with learning disabilities who have been placed in psychopedic institutions. Some of them stayed there for decades and decades of their lives, so we have collected evidence from people who spent over 40 years in Kimberley, or over 40 years in Templeton.”
Part of dark history
Commissioner Paul Gibson said it was part of the country’s dark history that needed to be revealed.
“Many of these stories have been lost over the past generations, but now is the time for them and there is a chance for Aotearoa New Zealand to hear and learn and listen and to make changes to ensure that what we have heard does not happen again.”
Crown Secretary Gregor Allan said he was listening.
“For too long, violence and abuse have remained invisible, but not to those of you who are victims of it,” he said.
“The Crown is there to listen to identify lessons learned and deliver on our commitments to address them.”
Calls for change
Priest told the hearing that changes were needed even now.
“Nothing will ever change what happened to Irene. The only acceptable form of apology will be changes that must be established, monitored and continually improved so that such abuse never happens again.”
She called for people with disabilities to be protected by state care.
“Irene asks me to take care of her, the other residents haven’t done it and they don’t do it in other houses either and we must never leave these people without a lawyer,” he said. she stated.
Priest also urged the government to oversee the care sector, ensuring adequate training and remuneration in all areas rather than leaving it to the private sector.
She said Irene’s situation had lasting effects.
“The neglect and lack of love, which I keep coming back to, made her less trusting of people,” Priest said.
“Irene used to be very warm and cuddly and that’s going to take time…we’re getting there but that’s not where it was. She’s lost her trust in people. I think it existed, and how it existed, I have no idea.”
Priest said Irene is happy now, living in a New Zealand care home.
“In her current home where she receives the level of care to which she is entitled, she is very happy. I mourn the fact that for 44 years she has not enjoyed this right and the pain this has caused her, to my parents and me.”
Where to ask for help
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