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Weraroa Boys Training Farm in Levin (Williams, P C :Photographs of Levin, Weraroa and Auckland c1900s. Ref: PAColl-0434-06. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23088544. Additional design: Archi Banal)
Weraroa Boys Training Farm in Levin (Williams, P C :Photographs of Levin, Weraroa and Auckland c1900s. Ref: PAColl-0434-06. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23088544. Additional design: Archi Banal)

The Quarter MillionJuly 26, 2023

The horrors of Kimberley

Weraroa Boys Training Farm in Levin (Williams, P C :Photographs of Levin, Weraroa and Auckland c1900s. Ref: PAColl-0434-06. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23088544. Additional design: Archi Banal)
Weraroa Boys Training Farm in Levin (Williams, P C :Photographs of Levin, Weraroa and Auckland c1900s. Ref: PAColl-0434-06. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23088544. Additional design: Archi Banal)

For over 50 years, the Kimberley Centre in Levin billed itself as a home away from home for hundreds of vulnerable New Zealanders. Behind the facade was a site of unspeakable abuse.

This article is part of The Quarter Million, exploring the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care. Read the introduction here and illustrated first person narratives here.

Content warning: This feature describes physical, sexual and emotional violence, child abuse and neglect. If this is difficult for you and you would like some help, these services offer support and information: Auckland specialist service Help, 0800 623 1700; specialist men’s service Male Survivors Aotearoa, 0800 044 334; and Snap (Survivors network of those abused by priests). Please take care.

There’s a video on YouTube of a self-proclaimed “urban explorer” picking through the derelict remains of the Kimberley Centre on the outskirts of Levin. Gloved hands open rusted doors to reveal abandoned rooms full of destroyed furniture, jammed typewriters, soft toys spilling their stuffing across the floor. Outside, a faded mural depicts beloved cartoon characters from days gone by: Wallace Footrot and Dog, The Flintones family and a few of the Muppets. 

Above a smiling Fozzie Bear are three simple words: “Home sweet home”.

But for Mr EI and many other residents, the Kimberley Centre wasn’t a home, it was a hellhole. Residing there as a teenage boy in the 1960s, he was subjected to a litany of abuse at the hands of doctors and nurses that still haunts him to this day. “It’s had a terrible impact,” he told the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care. “They took away everything, they took away my childhood, they took away my education… I found it very, very hard to settle back into society because I never had the help there.” 

The exterior of what remains of the Kimberley Centre (Image: Gunner NZ on YouTube)

The Kimberley Centre had many different names and functions before it became widely known as one the largest specialist institutions in the country for New Zealanders with an intellectual disability. The nearly 50 hectare site began life in 1906 as the Weraroa Training Farm, an institution for juvenile delinquents, before becoming the home of the RNZAF Station for pilot training in 1939. After the war, it evolved once more to the Levin Farm and Mental Deficiency Colony and later the Levin Hospital and Training School. 

In the 1960s, a psychopaedic nursing school was set up on site, along with a special school established by the Education Department. By 1972, 660 residents had been transferred from around the country to live at the site, 400 of whom were under the age of 18. In 1977, it was renamed Kimberley Hospital, and later became known as the Kimberley Centre. At its operational peak in the 1980s, it is estimated that 15% of all New Zealanders living with an intellectual disability were housed and educated in Kimberley. 

‘Kimberley was our only option’ 

Irene Priest was born in 1956, just 13 months after her big sister Margaret. Despite her parents requesting a caesarean for Irene’s delivery after Margaret’s traumatic birth, the specialist insisted on using forceps. Due to their incorrect use on her head during her birth, Irene entered the world with a brain injury that would leave her severely disabled for the rest of her life.

“We don’t know how much she understands. She needs 24-hour care. She cannot dress herself, she cannot toilet herself, she cannot read or write,” Margaret told the Commission. 

When Irene was five years old and Margaret six, their mother suffered a significant mental health breakdown. There were no social services available, no respite care, and prescribed antidepressants would leave her too exhausted to care for her children. “They basically wiped her out,” explained Margaret, recalling an instance where Irene was left unsupervised and climbed a fence to wander into the middle of a busy road. “My father was balancing up my mother’s health and Irene’s welfare, so our family doctor suggested that Irene go into care.” 

At the time, the family only had two options: the private facility Hōhepa, which required a certain level of ability to gain entry, or the Kimberley Centre, which was being promoted as a “training school” at the time. “There really was nowhere else, Kimberley was our only option,” said Margaret. “It broke my parents’ heart to send Irene away, but they thought Irene would be better off because she would at least be given proper training at Kimberley.”

Image: Archi Banal

When Irene arrived at Kimberley in 1962 at the age of five, her family was told that it was best they didn’t visit for a month to allow her to settle in. That time was cut short when they received a call to say that Irene had contracted hepatitis and was in isolation. Margaret was nearly seven at the time, and remembered walking into the room and seeing her sister alone. “She didn’t even have her teddy bear that she’d taken with her, she didn’t have a radio on, she was sitting rocking backwards and forwards on a hospital bed.”

Mr EI had quite a different journey to Kimberley. As a young boy, he told the Commission that the children’s court became interested in him because he was “unsettled” and did “get into a bit of mischief” growing up. “I did go out and get myself into trouble and I probably wasn’t under decent supervision from my parents,” he explained. First placed into a Taradale foster home, he would be locked in a room with windows nailed shut and the door jammed by his carers, and in one instance was hit so hard over the back with a broom that the handle broke. 

At 13, he ran away from the Taradale foster home and was moved to Hokio Beach School. There, he found it hard to settle in and was bullied and picked on by the other children. After an incident where he ran away and broke into a nearby bach at night, consuming everything in the pantry including some rat poison that would require his stomach to be pumped, he was picked up by the manager of Hokio Beach boys’ home and left alone in a room for several hours. The manager then came in and told Mr EI he would be transferred to Kimberley Hospital. 

It was August 1963, and he was 13 years old. 

‘The children were like zombies’ 

When he first arrived at Kimberley, Mr EI had one thought: “Why the F am I in a place like this?” He was surrounded by children who could not express themselves, feed themselves, or even go to the toilet on their own. “I was shocked because I did not have a mental or physical disability. I could not understand why I was there,” he said. Due to his capabilities, he would frequently be removed from class and made to help clean up or look after his fellow Kimberley residents. “There were never enough staff to look after the children, and the staff were not experienced.”

Mr EI estimated that there were two staff members present for every 30 children at Kimberley when he was a resident in the 1960s. “Ninety percent of the time, the staff could not handle what was happening,” he said. “These kids were placed in a hospital situation where they should have been treated with respect and given the care they needed. A lot of these kids were not given the care they needed. Kids would sit on the floor rocking back and forth.”

Despite having never been on medication before, Mr EI was also regularly given pills at Kimberley. He didn’t know what they were, so kept them under his tongue and spat them out in the toilet. He observed the children who were given medication were “like zombies” who would sit in the dorms all day until they were called for mealtimes. If they didn’t emerge fast enough, they would be punched, kicked or whacked on the head with a key – the “Kimberley cringe” became shorthand for raising your arms to try and protect your head and body from beatings. 

Irene’s family also expressed concerns about the “indiscriminate” way drugs were administered to residents at Kimberley. Irene and Margaret’s father had been a pharmacist, and was “very upset by the concoction of drugs” regularly given to his daughter. “To give you some indication of the impact the drugs had on her, at one stage she couldn’t even walk forwards, she walked around in circles or backwards staring at the ceiling,” Margaret recalled. “I would say that Irene lost approximately 20 years of her life with this drug use.”

Her regular concoction included antipsychotic Mellaril, even though Irene had never received any psychiatric diagnosis. In a letter on Irene’s file from 1995, Kimberley’s medical superintendent Dr Warwick Bennett acknowledged that the drugs given were largely ineffectual. “We all know that drugs are either unhelpful or poorly tolerated in her case,” the letter reads. “I also find that drugs are rarely a satisfactory solution to the problem of hyperactivity in our population but are frequently used because there are no alternatives.”

Despite this letter, Irene continued to be over-medicated. “There was talk at the time that the night staff liked to party, so they liked to have the drugs so that the residents were quiet,” said Margaret. Irene was eventually weaned off the drugs in the 2000s, and Margaret saw a positive change in her sister. “She stopped falling, she was very happy, she was more alert, and she wanted to eat,” she recalled. “She was so interested in food the caregivers at her house had to lock their cars because she would go into their glove boxes to get their lollies.”

‘I was meant to be in a safe haven’

Mr EI recalled a sickening pattern of sexual abuse at the Kimberley Centre that began after he injured his ankle and required a new dressing by the nurse. “When she was bandaging it, she sort of bent over me and she rubbed her breasts up against me and she replied that, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t be doing that, I’m a naughty boy for doing that’.” Things escalated one night when he was led by a nurse into an examination room, where a young woman was on a hospital bed in her underwear, surrounded by men and women. 

“One of the men was interfering with this young girl through her clothing,” he recalled. “I had to stand there and watch.”

This was far from an isolated incident. Mr EI estimates this form of abuse happening “around 100 times or more” in his year-and-a-half at Kimberley. “Every time, the same person would come and get me from my room. It could have been at any hour. I never knew exactly when they were going to come. None of us had clocks or watches anyway.” Two or three times a week, he would be brought to the same room and made to watch as small groups of men and women would tie young girls to the bed and sexually abuse them. 

A newspaper ad for a social worker at the Kimberley Centre in 1978 (image: Stuff Ltd / Archi Banal)

If Mr EI resisted his role in the abuse, he was brutally punished. “They’d tie a piece of string around my private parts, which was then tied to a chair and I was made to stand there so I couldn’t move,” he said. “If I did move, the string would pull on my private part and it would hurt.” On the way back to his room one night, “the nurse stated that it was going to be my turn next, which I didn’t understand,” he recalled. As time went on, he and some of the other boys were assaulted themselves, and forced to have sexual intercourse with other young girls. 

At just 13 years old, Mr EI remembered the feeling of total shock at the abuse he witnessed and was subjected to. “I do not think these men were staff members. I think they were people from the outside. I believe that these people were paying because sometimes I could hear conversations out in the foyer or in the hallway. They would talk about these girls and they would talk about money and cost,” he said. “I thought this wasn’t right, you know, I was meant to be in a safe haven, being a hospital for these kids, and this was happening.” 

All he could do was run away, fleeing the Kimberley grounds dozens of times in the short time that he was there. “It was an escape for me just to get away from the place.” In one instance, he was picked up by a police officer and taken to the Palmerston North police station. “We tried telling the police officer what had been happening to us at Kimberley, but no one took any notice of us,” he said. “No one seemed to be taking any notes. I told the police officer that I wanted to tell him about Kimberley, but he just focused on securing the cell.” 

“I told him there was sexual abuse going on but he just ignored me and walked off.”

‘She was afraid of something’ 

Irene lost a huge amount of weight at Kimberley, at one stage weighing as little as 32 kilograms in the mid 1990s. “Kimberley’s answer to that was to get her a restraining chair and force her to sit in it by buckling her into it,” said Margaret. The metal chair had a padded seat with a strap around the middle, so when Irene became distressed and tried to get away the chair would go with her and often result in injury. The chair was also used when Irene was “upset”, her sister said. “They would think that would be a good way to settle her down.”

Meal time used to be one of Irene’s favourite things, until the dentist at Kimberley made the decision to remove all her teeth. Irene’s teeth were very tightly packed and, when she required fillings, the procedure would have to be done under general anaesthetic because she was so frightened. Despite pleas from Irene’s family to consider other options, the procedure went ahead and all of Irene’s teeth were removed. Although they had the money for Irene to get implants, Kimberley never provided them which left Irene unable to enjoy her food at all. 

“There were very few things that Irene can get great pleasure out of: one is going for a drive in the car, another was eating,” said Margaret. “It felt like a final indignity because she would not be able to enjoy food as much as she used to.”

Hooks inside the building where the Kimberley Centre used to be (Image: Gunner NZ on YouTube)

Margaret also noted that when Irene would eat at home, rather than at Kimberley, she appeared fearful when being fed. “Because of being in this restraining chair, every time we went near one side she would cower,” she said. “I attribute it to this restraining chair, sometimes it would take two hours to feed her a meal, but we were determined to feed her.” When anyone would approach Irene from the side, Margaret said she would “cower away” in fear. “It was evident that she was afraid of something, but we have no way of knowing because she has no words.” 

In Irene’s file, “bruising on her thigh consistent with trying to vacate her restraint chair” is just one in a litany of injuries reported at Kimberley. There’s bruises, cuts, scratches, a tear to an eyelid, a head injury. “One I do remember vividly, and that was a large gash that took a long time to heal,” recalled Margaret. “It required five sutures underneath her eye and she was not seen by a doctor for that for a couple of days after it happened, and then it was written in her notes ‘patient uncooperative’. They didn’t even use her name.” 

When presented with Irene’s notes – 30 years of which were missing – Margaret said she was shocked at the true extent of the injuries Irene sustained at Kimberley. “We had no idea of these injuries, except the ones that we could see,” she said. “I am not aware of any explanation being given to my parents about the causes of the injuries.” In the small portion of records made available to Margaret, she found 17 head injuries and a number of incidents of physical assault, including multiple instances of being kicked in the nose and punched in the face.

‘Kimberley was all they had known’ 

Mr EI continued to run away from Kimberley, once managing to get a train all the way up to Auckland. He was discharged in 1964 and transferred to a series of foster homes, where he was treated “like a slave”, before being placed in Epuni Boys Home in Lower Hutt. There, he says he was again subjected to physical and sexual abuse by multiple staff members. “You had your heart torn from you, because you’d gone from one place thinking you’re going to be safe, into another place where you’re going to be safe and then onto another place,” he said. 

In September 2001, then-minister for disability issues Ruth Dyson announced that all remaining 375 residents at the Kimberley Centre in Levin would be resettled in the wider community, and the centre would close permanently. “Caring for people with disabilities in large institutions is no longer appropriate,” she said in a statement at the time. “The Kimberley residents have the right to live in the community like everyone else, with the necessary support to meet their personal, medical and social needs.”

Margaret remembers the government’s decision being met with mixed emotions. “It did get better for Irene near the end. In the early years I never saw any of the residents engaging in fun activities at Kimberley. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Irene was taken in van rides to beaches and they had BBQs and there were events planned for the residents,” she said. “Although my parents knew that de-institutionalisation would be better for Irene, they were also quite scared as Kimberley was all they had known.” 

In 2004, Irene was one of the last residents to leave Kimberley when she was placed into a New Zealand care house in Paraparaumu. That began another prolonged chapter of physical abuse, police complaints and an internal NZ Care investigation that saw three staff members fired. “I feel like I have been fighting my whole life,” said Margaret. “Every time I think that something is going smoothly, there is just something else that comes up.” These days, Irene has “a very happy life” in her current care home. 

“I would say her care home is a shining example of what care for disabled people like Irene can be. She has a caregiver who treats her like family.” 

‘It will always remain a hellhole’

Although years have passed, both Margaret and Mr EI still describe Kimberley in identical terms. “It’s just one word,” said Margaret: “Hellhole.” Mr EI echoed this: “It will always remain a hellhole in my mind … All it was, was a place for abuse.” Both express a deep feeling of anger towards the people who abused their positions of power. “It is like this big white hole of anger that you cannot describe. I have cried a lot and it is just this deep-seated upset that these carers could treat other human beings in this way,” said Margaret. 

That anger, Margaret said, cannot dissipate until she is able to forgive. “And I won’t be able to forgive until there’s an acknowledgment of the inhumanity towards Irene and others in her situation.” The impact of Kimberley and subsequent state care failings on Irene’s life has been immense. “How she existed I have no idea. How she survived, I have no idea. She has a resilience that is remarkable,” said Margaret. “Irene never deserved to be hurt or frightened. She deserved to have the best life that was available to her, but this has not happened.” 

The floor inside the old Kimberley Centre building (Image: Gunner NZ on YouTube)

Mr EI has only recently been able to confront the trauma suffered within the walls of Kimberley. “Ever since I was a child, I have held all of this in. I never properly talked about what happened.” He has since seen a counsellor but said that the horrors of Kimberley have stayed with him – stories on TV, in the papers and on the internet still trigger him. “If these things never happened to me, I could have been a totally different person… I could have been well off, I could have been a rich man. They robbed me of my childhood and my ability to socialise.”

In speaking up about his experience, Mr EI also acknowledged the role of other state institutions like Lake Alice, Cherry Farm and Porirua Hospital. “All of these institutions were exactly the same,” he said. “They took advantage of children that could not stick up for themselves.” His hope is that future survivors of abuse will not have to live in silence. “When a child says something is wrong to someone like a teacher or a police officer, those people need to respond appropriately. Those complaints need to be investigated and children need to be listened to.”

Witnessing her sister’s neglect and abuse had a profound impact on Margaret, her closest carer. “I love and care for my sister very much and what has happened to her has really affected me,” she said. “You cannot live your life happily if your loved one is not happy.” While she continues to feel that “white hole” of anger towards those responsible, Margaret is also focussed on the future. “The best we can do now is draw a line in the sand and ensure that from now on, care for disabled people, like Irene, is as good as it can possibly be,” she said.

“It is not just Irene that I fight for, but I fight for change so that these things do not happen to other vulnerable people.”

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