British Columbia

Province admits harm in multimillion-dollar settlement with more than 100 victims of B.C. social worker

B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Family Development has reached a proposed multimillion dollar settlement agreement with more than 100 alleged victims of a Kelowna social worker accused of stealing from some of the province’s most vulnerable foster children.

Proposed class action settlement would cover 102 victims of Robert Riley Saunders, could cost province $15M

B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Family Development has reached a proposed settlement agreement in the case of Robert Riley Saunders, a Kelowna, B.C., social worker accused of stealing money from vulnerable youth. (Facebook)

B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Family Development has reached a proposed multimillion dollar settlement agreement with more than 100 alleged victims of a Kelowna social worker accused of stealing from some of the province's most vulnerable foster children.

According to documents filed in B.C. Supreme Court Tuesday, the ministry has identified 102 possible victims — including 85 Indigenous youth — overseen by Robert Riley Saunders during his time in a guardianship role from April 2001 until he was fired in 2018.

In more than a dozen lawsuits filed in the lead-up to the agreement, former clients have accused Saunders of moving them from stable, loving homes into independent living situations and then using joint bank accounts to take money provided by the ministry for their care.

Many claim they were left homeless as a result, subject to physical and sexual abuse and plunged into desperate lives of addiction and pain.

As part of the agreement — which the parties will put before a judge July 28 — the province admits the harm their former employee has done.

"This harm includes neglect, misappropriation of funds and failure to plan for the children's welfare and, with respect to Indigenous children, failure to take steps to preserve their cultural identities," the agreement reads.

'Unspeakably selfish'

According to court documents, the Ministry of Children and Family Development first detected financial irregularities involving Saunders in 2017. The RCMP recently wrapped up an investigation into allegations of fraud and negligence.

The B.C. Prosecution Service has said they are reviewing the RCMP findings.

The terms of the proposed B.C. Supreme Court settlement would see the 102 victims get $25,000 each. Indigenous clients of Robert Riley Saunders would receive an extra $44,000. (David Horemans/CBC)

Saunders faces no criminal charges and has never responded to the numerous lawsuits against him. 

According to Jason Gratl, the lawyer hired by the B.C.'s Public Guardian and Trustee to represent Saunders's former clients, the proposed settlement could cost the province as much as $15 million.

The terms of the deal provide $25,000 for each of the 102 former clients regardless of their current circumstances. Indigenous clients will receive an extra $44,000 each.

The agreement would also create a process through which victims who have suffered homelessness, sexual exploitation, and physical or sexual abuse can apply for an additional $181,000 in damages.

"It's unspeakably selfish for a man to steal rent money from children and make them homeless, make them vulnerable to the predations of street homelessness, to visit on them untold grief and trauma, so that he can put $500 or $600 or $700 in his pocket," Gratl said.

Fake degree in social work

The latest court filings include Saunders's original employment application and a copy of what he claimed was a bachelor of social work from the University of Manitoba. Also included is an email from the university's registrar last year confirming that the degree is a fake.

The court documents also include a letter written in 2004 by the ministry's aboriginal community services manager for the Okanagan indicating that Saunders was in a perceived conflict of interest at the time for withholding a client's money.

He was warned he could be fired for further breaches.

Gratl said a number of employees within the ministry have lost their jobs and a number of the ministry's internal systems have been changed as a result of reviews sparked by the allegations.

"But I honestly have my doubts whether this lawsuit will be sufficient to effect the type of systemic attitudinal change within the ministry toward Indigenous people that would be necessary to alleviate problems of this kind in the future," he said.

"One lawsuit can't effect systemic change like that, but it can contribute."

Saunders vanished from Kelowna after the allegations became public in 2018 and has never been served with any of the lawsuits against him.

Gratl said he was believed to be working in an Alberta golf resort for a while and was most recently believed to be staying with a relative in Calgary.

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