British Columbia

No charges yet, but lawsuits continue against disgraced social worker months after RCMP investigation ends

Another lawsuit has been filed against a disgraced former social worker accused of exploiting dozens of vulnerable youth while working in Kelowna, B.C., reigniting questions about oversight, two months after RCMP quietly wrapped their criminal investigation into the matter.

Another lawsuit has been filed against Robert Riley Saunders of Kelowna, B.C.

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)

Another lawsuit has been filed against a disgraced former social worker accused of exploiting dozens of vulnerable youth while working in Kelowna, B.C., reigniting questions about oversight, two months after RCMP quietly wrapped their criminal investigation into the matter.

The RCMP did not announce the end of its investigation in April, but confirmed it had ended Thursday. An email said its report detailing the findings of the criminal investigation into Robert Riley Saunders' conduct had been sent to Crown lawyers. The force would not confirm any additional details.

A spokesperson for the B.C. Prosecution Service said in an email that the RCMP's findings are under review after being received in mid-April. There is no timeline on when charges might be laid.

The latest lawsuit against Saunders contains familiar allegations of psychological and financial abuse suffered by children who were under his care, but also includes accusations beyond the previous pattern: the lawsuit claims Saunders ignored a 12-year-old girl who reported being sexually assaulted and forced a teenager to have an abortion when she did not want one.

"This one ... is really egregious," said the woman's lawyer, Michael Patterson.

More than 18 youth, many of whom are Indigenous, have sued Saunders over the past two years. None of the allegations have been proven in court and Saunders has not filed responses to the claims.

By all accounts, he disappeared nearly two years ago.

Sexual abuse was dismissed, lawsuit claims

The latest lawsuit, filed Wednesday by a girl identified only as J.L.L., said Saunders first put her in a foster home when she was 12 years old in 2003. The claim said she was assaulted by a 21-year-old man in the house.

It said she reported it to her foster parents and Saunders, but claimed the social worker did nothing.

"Saunders advised the 12-year-old plaintiff that because she did not say 'no' there is nothing he can do about the sexual assault," the claim read.

The lawsuit alleges Saunders later placed J.L.L. in a "flop house" that was never approved as a foster home by the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD). It said she began taking cocaine and methamphetamines and was sexually exploited to pay for her drug use. She claimed, once again, Saunders knew about the abuse and did nothing.

The lawsuit said J.L.L. had two abortions at the ages of 14 and 16 and did not receive any trauma counselling.

When she became pregnant again at 17, she said, Saunders "forced" her to have a third abortion.

"Notwithstanding the termination of this pregnancy went against the plaintiff's wishes ... she was forced to terminate the pregnancy by Saunders," the lawsuit said.

"The plaintiff was not given a choice in the matter."

Children say they ended up homeless

Lawyers believe as many as 90 children might have been affected by Saunders during his time with the ministry. Teenagers have accused the former social worker of moving them from stable foster homes into independent living situations, then using joint bank accounts to siphon their support funds for his own use.

Some of the children said they ended up exploited, homeless and hungry, exposed to abuse and drugs.

Patterson said the crux of the issue is how the MCFD failed to prevent Saunders from allegedly wreaking havoc on the lives of the province's most vulnerable children who were already struggling to overcome a legacy of trauma.

"How did he get away with this? It's mind-boggling," Patterson said Thursday.

A number of lawsuits against Saunders, including documents filed by J.L.L., also accuse the MCFD of negligence.

The ministry has refused to comment on matters before the court, referring instead to earlier statements about responses to civil claims and the initiation of reviews into ministry controls. 

Saunders vanished after leaving his last known address in Kelowna once the allegations began piling up in 2018. Patterson, who is representing a number of youth including J.L.L., said his team has given up trying to track him down to serve him with documents every time he is sued.

About the Author

Rhianna Schmunk is a staff writer for CBC News. She is based in Vancouver with a focus on justice and the courts. You can reach her on Twitter @rhiannaschmunk or by email at rhianna.schmunk@cbc.ca.

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