British Columbia

'It's absolutely appalling': Indigenous youth in care vulnerable to exploitation, say advocates

When Indigenous child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock heard that a B.C. social worker had allegedly defrauded Indigenous children and youth in care, her heart dropped.

Province says it’s investigating complaint that B.C. social worker stole from First Nations teens

Dylan Cohen, 23 is a former youth in care. The Metis youth said many current and former youths in care were shocked to learn a B.C. social worker had allegedly defrauded Indigenous children and youth. (Dylan Cohen)

When Indigenous child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock heard that a B.C. social worker had allegedly defrauded Indigenous children and youth in care, her heart dropped.

"It's absolutely appalling," said Blackstock, referring to the allegations outlined in two separate lawsuits.

In them, former social worker Riley Saunders is alleged to have siphoned money meant for dozens of children and youth in his care.

"Indigenous youth in care often come from some of the most disadvantaged circumstances," added Blackstock, who has 25 years experience in child protection and Indigenous children's rights. She is also a professor of social work at McGill University.

In some cases, Saunders allegedly took their rent money, Christmas vouchers or birthday gift cards, according to a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs. At least one youth allegedly became homeless as a result.

The ministry says Saunders is no longer employed by the province. 

Youth in care 'reeling'

In one of the lawsuits, a teenage girl accused Riley Saunders of moving her from a stable home into an independent living arrangement where she was supposed to collect money from the Ministry of Children and Family Development. The suit says Saunders then siphoned that money for himself through a joint bank account he opened with the girl. 

The allegations have not been proved in court.

Dylan Cohen, who is Métis and a former foster child, said many former and current youths in care are reeling from the allegations.

But Cohen, 23, who is now an advocate with First Call, BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, said he is not that surprised.

"We know that youth in care are exploited by the system frequently," he said.

Dylan Cohen was taken into care in his early teens, along with his twin sister. Now 22, he is a youth worker in Vancouver. (CBC)

"The experience of someone being ripped off in the system, is not unique in the system," he said. "However, when it's such a blatant violation of trust on a grand scale, it's an offensive oversight that the ministry needs to respond to," Cohen said.

Ministry responds

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Children and Family Development has said it's been investigating allegations involving Saunders since December 2017.

That was when the ministry said it learned of financial irregularities and reported the concerns to the office of the comptroller general, a department that oversees B.C. government spending.

In January 2018, the province launched an investigation to determine if there was evidence of fraud.

Katrine Conroy, the minister of Children and Family Development, would not respond to follow up questions from the CBC. But a ministry press release stated that in January, it took steps to ensure the safety of the children and youth who may have been affected by Saunders.

The release does not elaborate on what steps the ministry took.

Cohen said he is glad that the ministry has moved to address the situation, but says there are other problems within the child welfare system.

'Terrifying' to turn 19

For example, he said there needs to be better support for foster kids after they turn 19, which is described as "aging out" of care.

"Nineteen is a terrifying time to be a youth in care in B.C.," Cohen said.

"When some of our peers are out celebrating and going out, we are losing all of the supports we ever had," he added.

In May, a coroner's report recommended more supports for kids who are leaving government care, citing their vulnerability.

The report noted that out of 1,546 youth between the ages of 17 and 25 who died from causes classified as accidental, suicide, natural, homicide or undetermined, 200 or 13 per cent were among people who had been in some form of government care.

'In the child's best interest'

Earlier this year, Conroy announced support for youth who have aged out of care and who are going back to school or attending a rehabilitation, vocational or life-skills program. The province increased monthly support for these youth by up to $250, to a new maximum of $1,250. 

Cohen says it's a start. "I'm skeptical but I'm optimistic that the system will look different in a few years and I know that these changes are expensive and time consuming but they are in the child's best interest," he said.  

About the Author

Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C.