Revelations about Australia’s public trustee sound like a Hollywood movie – with a devastating plot

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I Care a Lot is a dark comedy/thriller about a professional tutor in the United States.

Marla Grayson runs a lucrative, well-oiled racket, convincing the courts to grant her guardianship over dozens of elderly people she places in nursing homes. There they are sedated and unable to contact anyone in the outside world. She then sells their homes and possessions, through dubious but legal means, and pockets the proceeds.

Anyone who watched last Monday’s episode of Four Corners State Control would recognize shocking similarities between our 45-minute investigation and the Golden Globe-winning film.

The difference being that in Australia it is not the individuals who exploit people with dementia, brain damage and other disabilities – it is our own state governments.

For those who didn’t understand, a short summary:

  • A man spent years in a nursing home against his will after the murder-suicide of his wife and daughter. The Queensland Public Guardian’s Office kept him there despite documenting his constant requests to return home while the Public Trustee’s Office charged him tens of thousands of dollars. He was a million dollars worse off when he was released.
  • Another man was kept in hospital for a year before being tricked, sedated and sent by ambulance to supported accommodation against his will. Again, the Queensland Public Trustee’s Office, which controls the finances of those deemed to have no capacity, sold his stock portfolio and charged him $59,000 in fees over four years.
  • Then there’s the man who suffered a brain injury from a car accident at age 14 and whose compensation money was mishandled, leaving him with no savings.

An epic plot

There is an element in the Australian system that would really “raise the stakes” for a cinematic plot. In other words, state gag laws that prevent these “wards of the state” (or “clients” as the Queensland Public Trustee officially calls them) from speaking out publicly.

The laws of every state and territory (except the ACT) prevent the media from identifying these people, even after their death. The penalties: tens of thousands of dollars and/or six months or more in prison. Hence the ABC’s demands to two supreme courts to lift the ban and tell these stories.

And now for the plot twist.

If someone under the control of the Queensland Public Trustee’s office wants to hire a lawyer to go to court to argue for release, the office can refuse and withhold their own money. If someone else – a family member or friend – shows up to pay the court costs, then the Public Trustee’s office will use that person’s own funds to contest the claim.

This means that a tiny handful of people escape these orders. Others spend their lives having their money, property, and lives controlled by a faceless, helpless government bureaucracy.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to search, up and down arrows for volume.

State control: Australians trapped, stripped of their assets and silenced.

It could happen to you

For anyone who thinks these stories are an aberration, here’s a taste of the hundreds of emails I’ve received since the show aired, from across the country:

  • From a daughter: Mom had dementia and her money was in the Office of the Public Trustee and Guardian. Over the past 20 years, what was three properties has shrunk to just $24,000, she has no idea how and will probably never know where the money went.
  • From a psychologist about a client: Since her client’s release and subsequent capacity increase, she has not been able to regain control of her assets or obtain information about the condition of her stock portfolio or the house she owns. No one responds to the many inquiries about his finances.
  • From a Lifeline counselor: In the worst cases he’s heard of, people report being bullied or abused, not to mention financially, but emotionally and socially. Examples include: not receiving enough of their pension for groceries, prepaid phone credit, and prescription drugs; offensive language when asking for more funds; withholding funds as a form of punishment.
  • From another daughter: Her mother went to the Public Trustee’s office to make a free will, when she said there would be no cost if she made a representative of the Public Trustee her financial power of attorney. When she lost her mental capacity in 2019, the public trustee activated the financial power of attorney and has been charging like “wounded bulls” ever since, but providing few financial services.

For anyone who thinks this is a problem that could never touch you, think again. People who write to me are worried family members caring for an elderly or disabled person, someone who has had a stroke, someone with an internal family conflict and sometimes people who thought access to free will was a good idea.

Will reviews see fixes?

The day after the show aired, Queensland Attorney General Shannon Fentiman spoke in Parliament, describing it as “hard to watch” and “uncomfortable to watch”.

She announced two reviews – one external and one led by the Queensland Public Trustee’s office itself.

His statement described the “allegations” on Four Corners as highlighting “a number of harmful past practices by the Public Trustee dating back decades.” It’s not true. Two of them relate to 2020 and 2021.

She also said these practices no longer occur under the current management of the Queensland Public Trustee’s Office. However, two of the people featured in the Four Corners program had their experiences in 2020 and 2021, when new management was in place.

Perhaps just as troubling as the actions of the offices of the Queensland Public Guardian and Public Trustees is the inaction of organizations meant to protect people: the Queensland Human Rights Commission and the Queensland Ombudsman.

As one person replied after the ABC replied to his email:

“Thank you so much. This has seriously made my year. It’s the farthest I’ve come in two years of advocacy. I’m continually hitting brick walls.”

The villain of I Care a Lot is a pretty blonde woman in a tailored suit with perfect hair. In Australia, there is no face to our guardian and trustee system. In fact, you can’t even give the victim a face without risking a hefty fine or jail time. Now, that sounds like another wacky Hollywood scenario, except it’s our law.

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