B.C. children's ministry admits negligence and fraud by B.C. social worker

B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Family Development has admitted to fraud and negligence by a social worker facing multiple accusations of exploiting vulnerable Aboriginal teenagers.

Robert Riley Saunders faces class action lawsuit and 5 individual claims from vulnerable teens

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)

B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Family Development has admitted to fraud and negligence by a Kelowna social worker facing multiple accusations of exploiting vulnerable Aboriginal teenagers.

In a response to a proposed B.C. Supreme Court class action lawsuit, the province says Robert Riley Saunders was fired last May after an investigation concluded he had used his position to isolate his clients and deprive them of funds.

"Saunders was negligent ... committed misfeasance in public office, fraud and breached fiduciary duties owed to [one of the teens who sued him]," the court document reads.

"The province admits vicarious liability for the acts and omissions of Mr. Saunders."

Stolen funds

The proposed class action is one of a series of lawsuits filed in relation to the allegations against Saunders. Five individual claimants have also filed separate civil claims.

Saunders has yet to file any responses.

The notice of civil claim for the proposed class action lawsuit claims 'dozens of other children' were involved. (Roman Bodnarchuk/Shutterstock)

The proposed class action was filed on behalf of the Public Guardian and Trustee and focuses on the alleged experience of the lead plaintiff, R.O.

The teenage girl accuses Saunders of moving her from a stable home into an independent living situation that would see her collect money from the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

She says Saunders then opened a joint bank account with the girl and "stole the funds deposited by the ministry into the joint bank accounts by moving them to his own individual account."

Review launched

According to the province's response, the Ministry of Children and Families detected financial irregularities involving Saunders in December 2017.

He was allegedly suspended when he came back to work in January 2018, and a forensic financial audit was launched.

The province claims the audit concluded that Saunders had committed fraud and that the social workers "admitted to the conversion of funds."

The proposed class action lawsuit was filed in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver. Five other separate suits have been filed in Kelowna. (David Horemans/CBC)

According to the province's response, the director of child welfare also launched a "special review to ensure that appropriate services and planning were provided for affected children and young adults."

The director also obtained six-month protective intervention orders in September to prevent Saunders from contacting any of the minors involved.

The class action lawsuit claims Saunders "engaged in the same and similar unlawful and inexcusable activities in respect of dozens of other children in his care, most of whom are Aboriginal children."

Many of the teens who have filed suit against Saunders claim they were left homeless, hungry and vulnerable to exploitation on the street.

'Some verbal and emotional abuse'

In its response to R.O.'s claims, the province admits that "Saunder's alleged wrongful acts or omissions, caused or substantially contributed to the [teenager] living in unstable situations."

The ministry says "there was at least some verbal and emotional abuse" by Saunders which harmed R.O. 

The RCMP are investigating the allegations. Police say they have identified several alleged victims. No charges have been filed.

As part of the response to the allegations, the Ministry of Children and Family Development says it has implemented recommendations following a review of financial and internal controls.

The ministry claims it will also be launching a separate review of contracting and payment processes.

The province's response concludes that R.O. and other claimants "may be entitled to compensation for future costs" as well as general damages.  

None of the claims have been proven in court.

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.