Mar 15, 2022

Trapped, stripped of assets and silenced: “It’s government sanctioned elder abuse”

Public Trustee expose
Four Corners told the story of Chris Pearson, a former marketing executive who suffered an unimaginable tragedy in 2015 when his wife murdered their 11-year-old daughter and then took her own life. (Photo: ABC)

On Monday night, Four Corners revealed the lengths its reporting team had to go to to tell the stories of Australians who have been mistreated by the states’ Public Trustees.

In most states, it is illegal for people ‘under administration’ or ‘guardianship orders’ to be publicly identified. Journalists who report their stories could be fined or even sent to prison.

Four Corners had to take each case to the Supreme Court of Queensland to fight for the right to reveal the stories of victims of the Public Trustee.

What is the Public Trustee?

Public Trustees are state government bodies that take control of the finances of people who no longer have capacity to make decisions themselves because of conditions like dementia, a brain injury, an intellectual disability and mental health problems.

They sometimes pursue family members if they think funds have been misappropriated.

About 50,000 Australians are ‘under orders’ by the State Trustee.

The decision to place someone under guardianship is made following an assessment, which often occurs in hospital.

Leanne Groombridge, CEO Advocacy Tasmania, told Four Corners, “They’re getting them when they’re at their most vulnerable and they don’t even know that they’re being assessed.”

Forced to live in aged care  

Four Corners told the story of Chris Pearson, a former marketing executive who suffered an unimaginable tragedy in 2015 when his wife murdered their 11-year-old daughter and then took her own life.

Mr Pearson used alcohol to numb the pain and he was deemed incapable of caring for his surviving daughter. Alcoholism also contributed to his development of a chronic memory disorder.

When Mr Pearson broke his hip and was hospitalised, the Office of the Public Guardian stepped in to take control of his life and his finances. As soon as he fell under their order, his life began to head downhill and eventually he was forced to move into an aged care home.

Once inside the Public Trustee system, Mr Pearson found it was virtually impossible to escape – that was until provisional psychologist Inge-Marie Piekkala came to assess him. 

She found he did have some capacity to make decisions about his life, and she was disturbed by what he told her.

Mr Pearson initially thought he was going to aged care to recuperate, but eventually realised he was there to stay. He found aged care “very depressing” and “boring” and spent most of his days on the internet.

“It wasn’t the right place for him,” said Ms Piekkala.

“This to me is state sanctioned elder abuse,” the psychologist added.

As well as holding Mr Pearson in aged care against his will, the Public Trustee in the first year spent $26,000 of Mr Pearson’s money on fees, $155,000 on accommodation and living expenses in the aged care home, and paid a $325,000 deposit for a ‘premium suite’ in the aged care home.

“I’m very angry. I’ve been asset stripped. I’ve gone from being very wealthy to being asset stripped,” Mr Pearson told Four Corners.

Mr Pearson wanted to fight the order that kept him in aged care, but couldn’t access his own money. 

In the end, Ms Piekkala lent him the funds to mount his own legal challenge.

“I don’t like the idea that a government run organisation can have this type of advantage over a person, particularly because he has a young daughter,” she explained.

Eventually, Mr Pearson presented his case to a tribunal. He was found to have capacity to have supported decision-making and was granted his freedom.

“I feel very good about it all. It’s gone as well as can be expected,” he said after the hearing.

A few weeks later, the Public Trustee gave Mr Pearson back the keys to his property.

His time under the public guardianship cost him almost $1 million, a quarter went on his time in aged care.

“I don’t believe they act in people’s best interest,” Mr Pearson told Four Corners

“I think they don’t care. They’re a body answerable to themselves only apparently, and there doesn’t seem to be any oversight of what they do to people.”

Leanne Groombridge, CEO Advocacy Tasmania, told Four Corners, “People in an office are making decisions about your life and they have no idea about who you are, what you want and how you want to live.”

Public Trustees in South Australia, the ACT, Queensland and Victoria have all been embroiled in corruption cases in recent years, but nothing seems to change.

An investigation by Queensland’s public advocate found “serious issues about the level and complexity of the Public Trustee’s system of fees and charges, its lack of transparency, and the Public Trustee earning revenue from clients’ funds.” 

Yet nothing was done to remedy the problems.

Jeff Garrett, Legal Practice Director, Attwood Marshall Lawyers, told Four Corners that every day he receives several enquiries about Public Trustees from across Australia.

Claims include mismanagement, poor communication, not giving them money they need for day to day living expenses such as food and clothing, and withholding payment. 

He said the reason often given for withholding funds is to preserve them for the future, but at the same time, the Public Trustee doesn’t invest the funds properly and takes a large component in fees.

The Public Trustee is “failing miserably” in its fiduciary duty to those it is supposed to protect.

Natalie Wade, Founder and Principal Lawyer, Equality Lawyers, told Four Corners, “If you’re going to have a law that is going to actively offend the human rights of people with a disability, you would really want to have a system in place that supports those people to defend those human rights, and at the moment we don’t have either. We have a law that breaches their human rights and a system that does not allow them to defend them.”

Mr Pearson is now able to return to his community and resume his relationship with his daughter. But his experience with the Public Guardian has been scarring.

“That implies to me that something wrong is being done, and it is known because if those types of rules have to be surrounding this whole system, something stinks.”

Since the Four Corners investigation was aired on ABC on Monday night, the Queensland Government has announced it will hold an inquiry into the Queensland Public Trustee system.

Do you have any experience with the Public Trustee? Email editor@hellocare.com.au if you would like to share your story.

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  1. My 90 year old mother Inlaw recently had a 5 week stay in hospital and rehab after a fall at home, fortunately she had no breaks and was having rehab to build up her walking confidence.
    I was going to the hospital everyday to take her lunch as she doesn’t like the hospital food, I arrived one day to find her being interviewed by 2 social workers, they wanted to know all about her living arrangements, advising her that at her age she needed to be in a nursing home, I was so glad I walked in when I did, they were trying to get her to agree to a stint in rehab at a nursing home. I told them that my mother inlaw has all her faculties, makes all her own decisions, controls her own money, pays her own bills, does her shopping and other than having home help twice a month to vacuum and wash her tile floors, she manages at home on her own or with a family network that supports her, these guys were reluctant to talk to me even when my mother inlaw told them to discuss any concerns with me, they just scurried away , I do not trust these guys and believe that if I had not turned up Mum would have been whisked off to a nursing home, I just thank god mum was in a hospital where we could visit everyday, imagine if she had no visitors to question decisions.

    1. I’m so so glad you turned up . It’s pretty disgraceful to think this type of treatment is going on to our elderly or vulnerable people .
      Young people should sit up and take note as this will be them one day if they don’t stand up to this treatment.

  2. I have been having difficulty contacting and dealing with the Qld Public Trustee since early last year, so has been a year since I have had to negotiate the ongoing problem with regards to 3 overgrown trees growing over my fence and shed from an adjacent property
    Initially I rang the Fraser coast regional council and they referred me to the public trustee as they said it was deceased house and in the hands of the public trustee, they also stated that they are only able to get the lawns cut which was also knee high. The council have had it mowed once since I started my inquiries.
    When I got in touch with public trustee I was told the owner was in Kirami nursing home Hervey Bay and the officer in charge of the property was in unavailable at the first 3 times I rang them and they would give him a message to call me. On my 4th attempt to contact Thame officer whose name I did not note but he stated that it was a long process to get approval for works to be done on the property and several phones calls after to try and ask where the process was at he was abrupt and rude with me so I hung up and asked to speak to a manager who gave me a contact in Maryborough public trustee office named Karen who is also very hard to contact and when I do is extremely rude manner keeps telling me the same story of how hard it is to get gardening services to do the job and is still looking into it?!
    Due to living alone and frustration and concern of damage these tees r doing to my property, the council has sent me a form regarding neighbouring tree disputes which is 20 pages long and I am in the process of filling in this form to get some clarification and answers.
    I am also researching an ombudsman that maybe able to assist or understand my predicament and give me some productive advice?

  3. In fairness I’d say that at the time the trustees became involved he was physically and mentally on the bottom of the barrel. I’d like to believe that at the time they installed his broken self in a nursing home as the best option available.
    Clearly he has made a remarkable recovery and has turned his life around, the financial abuse from the trustees however is unforgivable and his money that was taken outside his nursing home fees should be reimbursed. Of course the RAD of $325000 is fully refundable.
    Sadly it’s another government body that should be better supervised.

  4. It is not just the Public Trustee you have to worry about it is family members who have complete control over financial affairs. Once a person is deemed to be a Guardian and Power of Attorney it is really just an invitation to defraud. The Guardianship Act needs to be urgently reviewed to stop family members rorting the system. There is currently nothing stopping a Guardian who also has POA from getting an ABN and setting himself up as an Home Handyman. Once they do this they can bill the Estate as if they were Plumbers or Electricians. Inotherwords they can get paid to do a job which is supposed to be voluntary. The other scam is to give your ageing parent spending money (cash) each week and then demand cash payments for services provided (IE., home maintenance, etc.). This cash can be directed into your business or funneled off into ‘friends’. Try challenging this arrangement at VCAT and you will very quickly find yourself up against an SC who is being paid by the Estate (at about $3000 a hearing). Guardians who also have POA should not be allowed to employ the highest paid Lawyer they can find and then bill it to the Estate. There needs to be more checks and balances because the current system literally puts the fox in charge of the chicken coop. I have decided that crime does pay it just depends on how much money you have and how much regard you have for your family.

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