Trapped, stripped of assets, and silenced. And it’s all legal

When the Public Trustee is given the keys to your life, speaking out publicly is illegal, and the state can block you from trying to regain your freedom.

Four Corners went to the Supreme Court to fight for the right to reveal the hidden ordeal of people who, like megastar Britney Spears, have escaped the system.

Chris Pearson unlocks and enters the investment property he used to own in Toowong.
Chris Pearson unlocks and enters the investment property he used to own in Toowong. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

Chris Pearson is returning to the ruins of his former life, before he was locked up against his will.

He’s just been given back the keys to his property. After four-and-a-half years, he is a free man once more.

The former marketing executive never committed a crime. His prison was a nursing home.

Chris Pearson in front of his former investment property in Toowong.
Chris Pearson in front of his former investment property in Toowong. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

He was taken there from a Brisbane hospital, not even allowed to return to his home to collect any belongings.

Chris’s nightmare began two years earlier, when an unspeakable tragedy sent him spiralling into grief and alcohol.

In December 2015, his wife Chiaki Pearson murdered their 11-year-old daughter in the family’s penthouse apartment, before taking her own life as well.

Chris Pearson and his family before the horrific tragedy. (Supplied)

“I hit the piss hard, because it was something I really struggled to deal with. A bottle a day or whatever. It takes the pain away. And that’s what derailed me from a damn near perfect life,” he says.

In the aftermath, Chris struggled to care for his surviving younger daughter.

Soon after, he was deemed unable to care for himself and lacking the capacity to make decisions about his life and his money. That’s when two little-known state government agencies in Queensland – the Office of the Public Guardian and Public Trustee – entered his life.

It was the Office of the Public Guardian that decided to force him into aged care, after he was hospitalised with a broken hip.

“I think the people of Australia would be outraged if they knew what had happened to me. If it can happen to me it can happen to anyone.”

Chewed up and spat out

Chris glances around the overgrown yard of his house, where he lived before he was taken to the aged care facility. 

“Holy shit,” he says, more than once, as he takes it all in.

It’s only been a couple of weeks since Queensland’s Public Trustee finally gave him back the keys to his property.

Considering it charged him thousands of dollars in ‘realty fees’ to manage the property on his behalf, he’s right to be shocked.

A run down green house with a construction site sign.
Chris Pearson’s home in Brisbane, which was not well maintained by the Public Trustee. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

Overhead on the deck, tiki torches strapped to its railing hint that maybe this place once hosted parties and good times.

Chris Pearson looks out the window of his home that has been ransacked.
Chris Pearson looks out the window of his home that has been emptied. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

For its owner though, any light and laughter at this place is long gone.

Windows that have been smashed are boarded up with wood.

“It’s all a bit sad,” Chris says.

Long before his nightmare began, Chris made millions working in the offshore oil industry. He had been a ‘somebody’.

Back then, he could never have imagined the powerful government systems he would come up against or how close he’d come to never returning.

Nor that it would cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in exorbitant fees and charges.

Chris Pearson with a drawing of himself when he was younger
Chris Pearson with a drawing of himself from when he was younger. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

His escape is almost a miracle. It followed an encounter with a provisional psychologist who discovered he was there against his will. She helped him with the slow and expensive process of escaping the system.

A secret process with little way out

The system is shrouded in secrecy. In almost every state in the country, it is illegal for people under an administration or guardianship order to be publicly identified. Journalists face huge fines, and even prison, for reporting their stories.

Four Corners went to the Supreme Court of Queensland to win the right for these people to speak out.

The system in Australia is similar to the one that controlled megastar Britney Spears in the US.

After the singer’s mental breakdown, her father was awarded a ‘conservatorship’ — full legal control over her money, her work and her life.

A supporter of singer Britney Spears holds up a picture of the pop star with the words "Justice for Britney
The case of Britney Spears exposed the role of Public Guardian and Trustee agencies who have total control over a person’s life once appointed. (Reuters/Mike Blake)

She was held under the controlling arrangement for almost 14 years before finally winning her freedom last year, focusing international attention on those under guardian and trustee arrangements.

The Australian system, which has about 50,000 people ‘under orders’, is supposed to ensure that the most vulnerable people are looked after.

But the Four Corners investigation shows that they can be forced into aged care or group accommodation against their will.

They are often charged high fees and, if they want to escape, the Public Trustee can use the individual’s own money to fight them.

Four Corners has discovered that in many cases, the system set up to protect vulnerable people, like Chris, is doing the opposite.

Forced into a nursing home

Chris says he didn’t know where he was going when he was taken to the nursing home.

He became increasingly depressed and distressed and his friends were powerless to help.

“He would ring me every day and say, ‘Get me out of here’ and it actually made me upset because I couldn’t get him out of there. If I could, I would,” says friend Tina Georgiou.

The Public Trustee charged Chris more than $155,000 for accommodation and living expenses at the nursing home in the first year he was there. 

He had no phone, few belongings and it took two years of asking to get a laptop. He spent his days alone, eating his meals in his room. His constant pleas to Queensland’s Public Guardian and Trustee agencies were ignored.

In mid-2020, Inge-Marie Piekkala, a provisional psychologist, was asked by the nursing home to assess Chris.

She quickly realised he didn’t belong there.

“In my screening tests, I found that Chris had really quite significant short-term memory issues, but he still had the ability to make decisions, still had the ability to process information.”

Chris desperately wanted to escape the nursing home. (Four Corners)

With Inge now helping him, Chris wanted to formally fight the guardianship orders, to get out of the aged care facility and return to his home.

He had half a million dollars in cash but the Public Trustee refused to give him access to his own money to hire a lawyer. Inge was deeply disturbed by how Chris was being treated by the agency.

“How can a person in Australia not have the right to have a lawyer when they want to defend themselves?” she says.

“There were just too many things that didn’t add up. Particularly because he has a young daughter. I mean, how can they do this to that family? She had already lost her mum and her sister and now she had her dad locked up.”

Inge arranged for Chris to have a comprehensive neurological assessment and lent him the money to hire a lawyer to have Queensland’s Public Guardian and Public Trustee removed.

In November, Chris was finally freed. 

Provisional psychologist Inge-Marie Piekkala became an advocate and friend to Chris. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

By then, the whole experience had cost him a fortune. Four Corners went through his finances with a team of forensic accountants who estimate it cost him more than a million dollars. The nursing home fees alone were $250,000. 

“I’m very angry. I’ve been asset stripped. I’ve gone from being very wealthy to not that much left extra in the till,” he says.

Now, something entirely ordinary, yet amazing for Chris is happening.

He’s back with the people he cares about, in a suburban Brisbane home, talking and laughing over dinner.

Chris Pearson laughing over dinner with his friend Tina
Chris enjoys a family dinner with friend Tina Georgiou. Something he couldn’t do last year. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

Precious moments like this are what he missed the most.

The most important thing to him now, he says, is rebuilding a relationship with his surviving daughter, now 14.

Chris Pearson hugs his surviving daughter.
Chris Pearson hugs his surviving daughter. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

“She’s my everything,” he says.

“I don’t believe that they act in people’s best interest. I don’t think they care. They’re a body answerable to themselves only, apparently. And there doesn’t seem to be any oversight of the Public Trustee and what they do to people.”

While Chris’s experience with the Public Guardian and Public Trustee is not unusual, his escape certainly is.

Total financial control

Peter Ristic is another whose life was turned upside down by the Public Trustee system. His life savings were eroded by extraordinary charges and unexplained fees — tens of thousands of dollars.

Despite having a share portfolio worth $163,000 just five years ago, the 66-year-old now struggles to make ends meet.

Peter Ristic looking in a bin for cans
Peter Ristic looking in a bin for cans so he can claim the 10-cent refund. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

Behind a unit complex in Canberra, he’s picking through a bin. He calls this his work – collecting bottles and cans for 10 cents apiece.

“It’s a bloody disaster. They mismanaged my funds. I should be living on $2000 a week.”

With a reasonable haul for the morning’s work, he hobbles home.

Peter hobbles with a walking stick
Peter uses a walking stick and spends his days searching through bins. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

Peter lived with his parents most of his life. Despite a brain injury, he worked as a driver and car detailer and amassed his share portfolio.

After both of his parents died and he had a stroke, things began to unravel and his health declined while living on the Gold Coast.

In 2016, Peter was admitted to Robina Hospital after a severe diabetic episode.

Peter Ristic in his bedroom
Peter lived with his mother until she died. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

There doctors performed a capacity test, which he failed. A bedside tribunal hearing appointed Queensland’s Public Guardian and Public Trustee to take control of his affairs.

Peter ended up having to live at the hospital for almost a year while officers of the Public Guardian decided what to do next.

They refused to let him live independently, even with home support, saying he couldn’t be trusted to keep up with his medication.

Peter was eventually sent to live at a supported living facility in Brisbane where he was forced to share a room with strangers for 14 months.

He hated it.

Peter Ristic looks out a screen door.
Peter says there was no heating or cooling in the supported accommodation. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

The Queensland Public Trustee liquidated Peter’s share portfolio and, over four years, began using up the proceeds.

Four Corners had a forensic accountant tally the many fees on Peter’s statements over four years. We found it charged him more than $45,000 in management, administration and other unexplained fees.

It also charged him $34,000 in legal fees and $14,000 in realty fees for ‘managing’ four vacant blocks of land. The bush blocks are worth just $20,000 in total.

Peter Ristic's pool is green and half filled
Peter doesn’t receive adequate support to maintain his property. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

Peter fought to return to his family home he inherited in Canberra. With the help of legal advocates, he had the authority of Queensland’s Public Guardian and Public Trustee revoked.

Until we showed Peter his statement, he had no idea that two weeks after he won his hearing, the Public Trustee deducted $18,000 from his account for its solicitor. 

“It’s unbelievable that they can do that and justify it by a bit of paperwork. That is criminal,” he says.

Peter Ristic in his messy living room
Peter has to live in a granny flat out the back of the house he owns. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

Peter is now under the control of ACT’s Public Trustee. Despite having a super fund worth $275,000, he hasn’t been able to access it.

An agency carer takes him to McDonald’s most days, but he has no-one to help him with cleaning or groceries.

Peter Ristic watching TV in his living room
Peter would like to buy a new TV but can’t access his money to do so. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

Peter is living in a granny flat behind the house that he owns.

Officers at Queensland’s Public Trustee had in 2019 approved almost $50,000 in renovations on the house to make it rentable and give Peter an income stream.

That work has long been completed, but, it remains vacant.

“I thought it [the Public Trustee] was to preserve your assets and not waste them, and look after them on your behalf. But that’s not the case. They tend to waste your assets and bleed you dry and that’s how they treat people,” Peter says.

The brick Canberra home where Peter Ristic grew up.
The Canberra home where Peter Ristic grew up and now owns. (Four Corners: Brendan Esposito)

Four Corners contacted both the Queensland and ACT Public Trustees and Guardian agencies about these cases.

None would be interviewed and refused to answer specific questions.

In a statement, Queensland’s Public Trustee Samay Zhouand said: “Four Corners has brought to the Public Trustee’s attention matters not previously raised. We acknowledge the experience of the individuals and have commissioned a priority review of these matters under our independent complaint review mechanism. An external expert will conduct the review.”

If you or anyone you know needs help, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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