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Media release

Chief Ombudsman gravely concerned by ‘volatile’ environment at intellectual disability facility

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Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has grave concerns about what he describes as a ‘volatile’ environment at an inpatient unit at Dunedin’s Wakari Hospital which houses people with intellectual disabilities and/or mental health issues.

Mr Boshier is critical of the physical environment of Ward 10A, which he says is exacerbating a situation in which male and female patients, some with criminal convictions or who pose a serious risk, are accommodated together.

“The ward holds multiple contracts with the Ministry of Health which means forensic and non-forensic patients are being accommodated together. There is also a lack of gender separation on the ward.

“This, together with the fact that the ward is not fit for purpose and is in critical need of upgrade and redevelopment, is creating a volatile environment. The physical environment was described by staff working there as a ‘disgrace’, and I believe it compromises staff and patient safety,” Mr Boshier says.

“This situation is another example where the Ministry of Health has failed in its stewardship responsibility to ensure that investment in facilities meets the needs of the community.”

The Chief Ombudsman’s report on Ward 10A and its community transition accommodation Helensburgh Cottage, was released today along with reports on Ward 6C at Dunedin Hospital; Manaakitanga Unit at Te Nīkau Grey Base Hospital in Greymouth; Wāhi Oranga Mental Health Admission Unit at Nelson Hospital; and Fraser McDonald Unit at Auckland City Hospital.

Another area of concern at Ward 10A was seclusion and restraint events, including a patient being barricaded in their room and an N95 face mask being placed on a patient during a restraint.

“There were some positive aspects, however. Patients were able to lock their doors and bathrooms. The unit also did not use night safety orders, where patients are locked in at night. It had also implemented a system of ‘ward rounds’ meetings in which staff discussed care and activities for patients,” Mr Boshier says.

At Manaakitanga Unit on the West Coast, security staff had been used in restraint events, including male security staff restraining female patients.

“I am concerned about what appears to be the normalisation of the use of security staff for therapeutic interventions in mental health units. I am pleased the Ministry of Health and DHBs have responded to my concerns and I look forward to seeing progress in this area in future,” Mr Boshier says.

“The purpose of my inspections and subsequent reports are to shine a light on the welfare of extremely vulnerable people. It is my hope that the reports act as a catalyst for change and a more positive approach to the care of people with intellectual disabilities and/or mental health issues.”

The inspections, between March and June last year, were carried out under the Crimes of Torture Act 1989. New Zealand is a signatory to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, an international human rights agreement.

Read the reports here: 

Editor’s note

New Zealand ratified the United Nations’ Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 2007. The Protocol requires States to establish independent National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) to regularly inspect places of detention and report on the treatment and conditions of those held within them.

The Chief Ombudsman was originally designated as a National Preventive Mechanism under OPCAT in 2009, which means he monitors treatment and conditions in places of detention designated to him, such as health and disability facilities, to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

He can recommend practical improvements to address any risks, poor practices, or systemic problems that could result in a client being treated badly. Follow-up inspections are conducted to look for progress in implementing previous recommendations. Reports are written on what is observed at the time of inspection.

You can follow the Ombudsman on Facebook: @ombudsmannz or Twitter: @Ombudsman_NZ

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