British Columbia

Province responds to allegations against employee who allegedly siphoned funds from Indigenous youth

The Ministry of Child and Family Development has outlined the steps it said it took after learning Robert Riley Saunders allegedly pocketed funds meant for vulnerable Indigenous youth.

MCFD says it has been investigating allegations involving Robert Riley Saunders since December of 2017

Robert Riley Saunders is being sued as part of a proposed class action lawsuit which claims the social worker stole money from vulnerable First Nations teens. (Facebook)

The Ministry of Children and Family Development has outlined the steps it said it took after learning a B.C. social worker allegedly pocketed funds meant for vulnerable Indigenous youth.

The ministry says it has been investigating allegations involving Robert Riley Saunders since December of 2017.

On Friday night, MCFD sent out a press release saying a B.C. Supreme Court judge lifted a publication ban related to the case, which MCFD says has allowed it to comment on the case.

While Children and Family Development Minister Katrine Conroy did not make herself available to speak, the release detailed steps the ministry took to protect affected children and youth since discovering an MCFD employee based out of Kelowna was potentially abusing his position.

It also outlined steps it said were taken to strengthen its financial systems.

A proposed class action lawsuit was filed against Saunders on behalf of the Public Guardian and Trustee earlier this week. There was another action containing similar allegations filed from Kelowna on the same day.

In the statement of claim, it alleges Saunders, in some cases took youth, many Indigenous, out of stable foster homes and into his care via an independent living arrangement.

He then collected money from MCFD, meant for the youth's rent, clothing, and food. At least one of the youth was allegedly rendered homeless as a result.

'Dozens of children'

The defendants include Saunders, the ministry and the bank where the account was allegedly opened, at Interior Savings Financial.

The notice of civil claim for the proposed class action lawsuit claims 'dozens of other children' were involved.

The RCMP and B.C's representative for children and youth are also looking into Saunders' alleged activities.

MCFD actions

After learning of financial irregularities in December of 2017, the Ministry of Children and Family Development says it reported concerns to the office of the comptroller general, a department that oversees B.C. government's spending.

According to the press release, in January 2018 an investigation commenced to determine if there was evidence of fraud.

In January, MCFD says it also took steps to ensure the safety of the children, youth and young adults who may have been affected by Saunders, but it does not say how.

Gift cards, rent money

Jason Gratl , who is acting for the plaintiff in the potential class action suit filed in Vancouver, told the CBC that while he has limited information so far, he believes that at least two dozen children and youth may have lost money owed to them by MCFD.

"In some cases it looks like ... Saunders might have pocketed Christmas vouchers," he said.

Gratl says it's also alleged that Saunders took  gift cards for birthdays and pocketed rent money.

'Appalled at the conduct'

Child-welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock who is the executive director of The First Nations Child & Family Caring Society says it was upsetting to hear about the allegations.

"As a social worker — I am appalled," she said about the allegations and the suffering of the youth.

She says the victims are among the most disadvantaged people in the province.

Blackstock added that she hopes that the children and youth will be granted compensation.

Printing cheques

In March of 2018, MCFD says the provincial director of child welfare launched a review "to ensure that services and planning were provided for affected children and young adults."

Later that month, MCFD says it notified the public Guardian and Trustee of the matter and shared reports with the office of B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth.

It added that Saunders is no longer employed with the provincial government but would not say since when.

MCFD says it is now also launching a review of the ministry's contracting and payment processes and is looking at ways to prevent staff from being able to initiate and print cheques without the involvement of a second staff member.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

With files from Jason Proctor.

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.