This article is part one in a series. For the full series, go here.

Some readers may find aspects of this article distressing.

Across Australia, tens of thousands of people — most elderly, some living with disabilities — have aspects of their lives controlled by the state.

Public guardians are appointed when people are deemed unable to make decisions for themselves, and can decide where these people live, who can visit them and what medical care they receive. In some states, guardianship orders define what specific decisions a public guardian can make, while in other states orders are broader. These orders are time-limited and are periodically reviewed. Nearly 14,000 Australians are currently under a guardianship order.

Then there are public trustees. They decide where these people’s money should be invested and what personal items should be sold — and charge astronomical fees for doing so. State public trustees manage nearly $15 billion in assets and consistently make a profit for their services, representing more than 47,000 Australians.