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Kimberley Centre 60th anniverary

Anne Hunt

Author of "The Lost Years" from Levin Mental Deficiency Colony to Kimberley Centre.

Centre 60th anniverary

Sixty years ago, the modern air force station on the outskirts of Levin offered Prime Minister Peter Fraser an ideal environment to house children deemed, to use the terminology of the times, 'backward', and appease parents pestering him for a facility in the North Island similar to Templeton in the South. It was a decision which outraged Levin's community leaders who envisaged a more patriotic use for the facility no longer required for the war effort.

Nevertheless, on Friday 27 July 1945, a bus carrying 42 young men and three escorts from Templeton arrived at the new Levin Farm and Mental Deficiency Colony. Both staff and patients soon settled into the two-storied homestead which had once been the manager's residence and the Clematis Cottage nearby.

Charlie Guy as head attendant was determined to ensure that these young men were not ostracised by the local community and embarked on a public relations campaign to encourage community groups to become involved with recreational activities and trial work placements.

Meanwhile, the Public Works department supervised the conversion of air force barracks into accommodation for further arrivals, both male and female. By 1953, the demand for beds had exhausted all available space and the waiting list had escalated to 400. Accordingly Cabinet approved a major expansion plan, incorporating eleven purpose-built villas.

Progress was rapid on all fronts, and a name change in 1959 affirmed its new role as the Levin Hospital and Training School.

Four years beforehand, Peter Graham had been appointed the country's first training officer and given official backing to spearhead a range of innovative programmes designed to maximise the potential of patients, many of them profoundly retarded. These pioneering projects soon attracted international attention as they were considered unique at the time.

During 1959, a joint venture by the health and education departments broke new ground with the construction of a school on the hospital site.

Following the introduction of a new psychopaedic curriculum to distinguish between the mentally retarded and the mentally ill, the country's first psychopaedic nurses graduated from the three-year course at the on-site School of Nursing in 1964.

A year later, Lew Goodman as the head tutor created a laboratory equipped to carry out advanced research, including detection of chromosomal deformities, a process then in its infancy. It was an era when universities were taking a greater interest in mental retardation, and due to the concentration of people with rare syndromes at the hospital, it was not unusual for academics and groups of medical students to seek permission to visit the hospital to advance their knowledge on this subject. One such notable visitor was American Professor Robert Guthrie who devised the Guthrie test for new-born babies.

"Few Levin citizens grasped the international stature of the institution on their doorstep", Sister Eileen Norman stated; adding that she felt like Guide Rangi showing all the international visitors around.

Confusion with the new general hospital in Levin led to a further name change in 1977 to Kimberley Hospital and Training School. The population exceeded 700.

"Kimberley takes no joy in being the largest intellectually-handicapped hospital in the southern hemisphere and for looking after 15% of all identified intellectually handicapped persons in NZ", Dr Alan Frazer, the medical superintendent announced in 1982. "The biggest discrepancy in national data indicates that Kimberley had almost 50% more cases in the severely handicapped range than the national average. Kimberley also takes in the psychiatrically disturbed, unlike Mangere and Templeton."

Sensing that the era of large psychopaedic hospitals was drawing to a close however, he identified 200 people who could be considered for discharge into the community. "We feel today that it is no longer appropriate for residents who could benefit from placement in the community to be here."

When Dr Frazer resigned in frustration due to lack of high-level support for his plans to change the focus of the institutution, the new medical superintendent Dr Warwick Bennett reported that the emphasis on community care and normalisation would continue. However he admitted that: "Although Kimberley Hospital has an impressive record of discharging patients into the community, there seems to be no clear role on what its future should be."

Plans for a major redevelopment of the site were quietly shelved.

When Dr Paul Taylor arrived from Canada to take over management of the facility in 1987, the population had already declined to 540. Changing the name to Kimberley Centre, he said, "reflected a commitment to normalisation and the recognition that our major emphasis in the future will be on lifestyle and development services for which the old hospital model with its implication of illness is no longer appropriate."

By 1991, the hospital's administrators acknowledged society's expectations had changed and they no longer saw hospitalisation as the ideal.

The workshops were suddenly closed down in 1988, and the school was also phased out. In 1989, the National Training School was disestablished, and two years later the final class graduated from the School of Nursing.

As the policy of deinstitutionalisation took its toll on psychiatric and psychopaedic institutions throughout New Zealand, uncertainty prevailed until September 2001, when Ruth Dyson as Minister of Disability Issues announced the closure of this country's last major institution.

According to the original deinstitutionalisation timetable, the last of the 379 residents were scheduled to leave Kimberley Centre by March 2005.

Due to delays, Kimberley Centre will nevertheless survive long enough to celebrate its 60th birthday, this week.

ENDS

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