British Columbia

Sentencing begins for man who stole funding from vulnerable B.C. youth as unqualified social worker

Sentencing proceedings began Monday for a Kelowna, B.C., man who faked his qualifications as a social worker and drained money from dozens of vulnerable foster children for several years.

Robert Riley Saunders pleaded guilty in September to fraud, breach of trust

The behaviour of former social worker Robert Riley Saunders was at the centre a class-action lawsuit in which former wards of the province said he stole money from them while under his care. Anyone who was in Saunders' care is eligible to receive between $25,000 and $250,000 in compensation. (Facebook)

Sentencing proceedings began Monday for a Kelowna, B.C., man who faked his qualifications as a social worker and drained money from dozens of vulnerable foster children during his nearly 20-year career.

Robert Riley Saunders sat next to his lawyer in B.C. Supreme Court as the case goes through what's known as a Gardiner hearing, which needs to be completed before the judge can decide on Saunders's sentence.

Saunders pleaded guilty last September to fraud and breach of trust for stealing money intended to help children in his care.

He also admitted to causing the province to act on a forged document because he lied about his qualifications for social work.

Former youth in care says he was misled

Former foster children, the majority of whom are Indigenous, have accused Saunders of steering them away from stable, loving homes onto the street or into more independent living situations when they were children.

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

The first witness to speak during the proceedings Monday was a former youth who had Saunders as a child protection guardianship worker.

Now in his early 20s, the man said Saunders never told him the full scope of financial aid that was available to him and offered only smaller vouchers a few times a month to cover food and clothing.

"I felt like a stepchild. Anytime I brought any sort of problem to the table, it would be quickly swept off," said the man, who can only be identified as "H".

"H" said he also remembered opening a joint bank account with Saunders at an Interior Savings Credit Union branch, but felt like he was in an "iffy situation" and never used the account.

After leaving foster care, "H" said a new worker told him he was eligible for an independent living arrangement that would give him hundreds more in financial support to help cover expenses like schooling and rent. 

Former coworker speaks in court

Later Monday, a social worker who worked with Saunders at the Ministry of Children and Family Development also addressed the court. She said she remembered Saunders buying himself a new boat, a new truck and new home in Kelowna ⁠— all on what should have been a social worker's salary.

The former colleague, who was as an acting team leader the year before Saunders was fired, said she went to management after realizing independent living cheques ⁠— worth $579 each ⁠— were being sent twice a month to a youth on Saunders's caseload who was actually in jail.

"I said to [Saunders], 'Something doesn't look right. You need to come forward now....' And he continued to say, 'No, there's nothing, just leave it alone, just leave it alone,' " the colleague said.

The case is going through the Gardiner hearing so the court can determine facts of the case that — if proven by the Crown — will affect the severity of Saunders's sentence.

Saunders was fired from the ministry in 2018. Many clients claim they were left homeless as a result of his behaviour, while some said they suffered physical and sexual abuse and ended up living with addiction.

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

A lawyer for the plaintiffs said that more than 100 victims have come forward to register claims. As anyone who was in Saunders' care is eligible to receive between $25,000 and $250,000 in compensation, the province could pay out as much as $15 million in total compensation.

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