British Columbia

Former foster child wants more charges against disgraced Kelowna social worker

Aden Withers felt a mixture of feelings when she heard Robert Riley Saunders was arrested in Alberta on 13 criminal charges related to his work for the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

Robert Riley Saunders appeared in court on Thursday on charges of theft, breach of trust and fraud

Aden Withers is one of more than 100 former youth who have accused former social worker Robert Riley Saunders of neglect and mistreatment. (Brady Strachan / CBC)

Aden Withers said she felt a mixture of feelings when she heard Robert Riley Saunders was recently arrested in Alberta on 13 criminal charges related to his work for the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

The young Indigenous woman was one of more than 100 youth under Saunders' care who allege they were mistreated and neglected, and in some cases defrauded of thousands of dollars of ministry money that was to be used for their care.

His victims allege Saunders' actions left many of them homeless, sexually exploited and addicted to drugs.

"My honest thought when I heard he was arrested was relief and a little bit of anxiety over how the youth are going to handle this situation, and anxiety over whether or not he will be brought enough justice," Withers said.

10 counts of fraud among criminal charges

The 50-year-old is charged with 10 counts of fraud over $5,000, one count of theft over $5,000, one count of breach of trust and one count of uttering a forged document. 

Saunders made his first court appearance Thursday morning via phone from where he is being held in custody in Alberta.

Saunders was supposed to be in Kelowna for the hearing but his transfer to B.C. was called off because of a potential exposure to COVID-19, the court heard Thursday morning.

He is now in quarantine at the Calgary Remand Centre and is expected to be transferred to Kelowna later this month for a bail hearing. 

Robert Riley Saunders was first hired by the Ministry of Children and Family Development in 1996. He used a fake social work degree as part of his original employment applications, according to court filings. (Facebook)

Saunders was first hired by the ministry in 1996. He used a fake social work degree as part of his original employment applications, according to court filings.

Former foster children, the majority of whom are Indigenous, have accused Saunders of steering them away from stable, loving homes and toward the street or more independent living situations.

They said he then used joint bank accounts to take government aid for himself, when it was meant to fund their care.

The alleged offences happened from 2001 until Saunders was fired in 2018.

The province settled a multi-million-dollar class-action lawsuit in the case last month.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs said more than 100 victims had come forward to register claims.

Withers is among the plaintiffs and said she has gotten to know other youth who were in Saunders' care.

'I feel like it's not enough'

She questions why Saunders is only facing 10 charges of fraud when so many have come forward with allegations against him.

"I feel like it's not enough," she said.

"It's actually detrimental to the mental well-being of many of the youth in this situation and I think that honestly more needs to be done."

Withers won't be attending the court hearings partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic but also because she fears it could harm her mental health, she said.

A date for a bail hearing is expected to be set for later in December, after Saunders finishes his quarantine and is transferred to B.C.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brady Strachan

CBC Reporter

Brady Strachan is a CBC reporter based in Kelowna, B.C. Besides Kelowna, Strachan has covered stories for CBC News in Winnipeg, Brandon, Vancouver and internationally. Follow his tweets @BradyStrachan

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