British Columbia

Where is Robert Riley Saunders? Social worker accused of stealing from kids disappears

In July 2019, an employee of a Vancouver law firm turned up at a golf course in Southern Alberta asking for a man named Bob. He was looking for Robert Riley Saunders, a former B.C. social worker accused of siphoning money from the province's most vulnerable children.

B.C. Association of Social Workers says case highlights need for regulation of MCFD employees

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

In July 2019, an employee of a Vancouver law firm arrived at a golf course in Southern Alberta asking for a man named Bob.

He was looking for Robert Riley Saunders, a former Ministry of Children and Family Development social worker accused of siphoning money from the province's most vulnerable children by steering them away from loving homes and into the street — and his control — instead.

Saunders' name and face were once splashed across news headlines as former clients lined up to sue. The province admitted much of his wrongdoing. The RCMP said they were investigating.

And then — nothing.

Damaged young people, many of them First Nations teens, continued to file claims against him. Saunders now faces a total of 18.

But according to documents filed in B.C. Supreme Court, Saunders has disappeared. And the tip about the golf course turned out to be another dead end.

"The 'Bob' who presented himself at the pro shop was not Saunders," Jason Gratl, a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs, wrote in a court application filed last week.

Staff were shown a picture and asked about anyone else named Robert, Riley or Bob.

"The staff advised that nobody else by those names or anyone else who resembled the picture of Saunders was working there."

Homeless, hungry, addicted, abused

More than two years after the detection of financial irregularities at the MCFD first led to Saunders' suspension, the case has all but vanished from public view.

In court documents, the ministry has said the situation led to reviews of financial and internal controls as well as the ministry's contracting and payment processes.

The lawsuits against Saunders claim that vulnerable teenagers were rendered homeless, hungry, addicted and abused as a result of fraud. (Roman Bodnarchuk/Shutterstock)

But the extent of Saunders' alleged fraud has never been disclosed, nor have details of any investigations explaining how ministry oversight and overseers failed to prevent one man from allegedly wreaking havoc on the lives of teens already struggling to overcome a legacy of trauma.

Lawyers believe as many as 90 children may have been affected. And in all the claims filed so far, the details are harrowing.

Teenagers accuse Saunders of moving them from stable, loving foster homes into independent living situations and then using joint bank accounts to take money provided by the ministry for their care.

Some of the children say they ended up homeless and hungry, exposed to abuse, methamphetamine, crack and cocaine. Others claim they were sexually exploited as a result of Saunders' actions.

'No progress has been made'

The head of the B.C. Association of Social Workers (BCASW) says the case highlights a problem his organization has been begging the government to fix for years.

Under the province's Social Workers Act, people employed as social workers by the Ministry of Children and Family Development are exempt from regulation by the B.C. College of Social Workers.

Documents filed in B.C. Supreme Court detail both the case against Robert Riley Saunders and the extent of attempts to find the former Kelowna resident. (David Horemans/CBC)

Saunders was never registered with the college, which means he was not answerable to any regulator or code of ethics outside of the ministry — which is now also being sued for negligence.

"We believe that Robert Riley Saunders' alleged theft and abuse of his powers might well have been prevented or at least limited in their scope," says BCASW president Michael Crawford.

"All these stories are about Robert Riley Saunders the social worker and all these other social workers who have done good or bad things, when in fact the public can never be certain whether a person is a social worker or not."

Crawford's organization — which supports and promotes the interests of social workers — wants the profession brought under the Health Professions Act, currently under a process of revision.

According to a submission Crawford provided this January to a steering committee on modernizing health profession regulations, the social workers association has been in talks for years with the MCFD about changing the rules.

"These talks continue; however, no progress has been made with regard to increasing protection of the public interest ... to ensure accountability in accordance with our professional standards and code of ethics," the submission says.

"In sum, our attempts to ensure high quality social work services through protection of title and mandatory registration for all social workers have met with limited success through the Ministry of Children and Family Development."

The search continues

Cheryl Casimer, political executive with the First Nations Summit, says her organization has also been urging the ministry to amend the law to force its social workers to register with the regulatory college.

She says the public has a right to know the extent of the wrongdoing the ministry says it identified, as well as whether there may be other similar cases.

"We can't let something [like] that just fall off the radar," she says.

"The system's supposed to be protecting kids, especially vulnerable children, at-risk children, and they should never be subjected to something like that."

Casimer says somebody beyond Saunders clearly "dropped the ball," but short of a public inquiry or some type of wider accounting, the details are impossible to know.

The ministry wouldn't comment on matters before the court, referring instead an earlier statement about the response to the civil claims and the initiation of reviews into ministry controls.

Meanwhile, Kelowna RCMP Cpl. Jocelyn Noseworthy confirmed that the criminal investigation into Saunders continues.

"This is an extremely large and complex file and our investigators are diligently working to ensure that every avenue has been thoroughly investigated prior to forwarding our findings to the B.C. Prosecution Service for charge considerations," Noseworthy said in a statement supplied to CBC.

"As of this date, the matter has not been forwarded to Crown counsel."

And the lawyers are still searching for Saunders.

"It is generally understood ... that Mr. Saunders has fled his last known address in Kelowna in late 2018 and appears to have left the city altogether," Gratl wrote in a court application looking to serve Saunders with copies of the suits against him through email.

"From time to time our office receives anonymous tips that Saunders has been spotted in various locations outside Kelowna. Our office had received tips that Saunders had been seen working at a pet store outside of Calgary after moving from Kelowna and also that he had been working at the pro shop of a golf course in Kananaskis in the summer of 2019 and was going by 'Bob.'"

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 the justice system extensively.

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