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Kelowna RCMP investigating allegations social worker defrauded vulnerable youth

RCMP say they've spent months investigating allegations that a Kelowna social worker defrauded vulnerable teens.

Advocate says allegations prime example of need for First Nations control over child welfare

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)

RCMP say they've spent months investigating allegations a Kelowna social worker defrauded vulnerable teens.

In a statement to CBC, police confirmed the existence of an "ongoing investigation" into a situation which came to light this week with the filing of a proposed class-action lawsuit against Robert Riley Saunders.

"The progressing investigation and nature of the alleged offences have permitted investigators to identify several victims," said Cpl. Dan Moskaluk.

"To date no charges have been laid in this matter."

'It's just horrific'

News of the police probe comes as advocates for First Nations children expressed frustration with a lack of concrete details around an alleged fraud said to have rendered teenagers homeless and vulnerable to exploitation.

"It's just horrific," said Cheryl Casimer, political executive with the First Nations Summit which provides a forum for First Nations in B.C. to address issues related to treaty negotiations and other common concerns.

"It just goes to show how badly the system is broken and it's a prime example of why we definitely need federal and provincial First Nations child welfare legislation."

B.C.'s representative for children and youth, Jennifer Charlesworth, says her office has opened 14 advocacy files related to allegations involving Robert Riley Saunders. (InWithForward)

The allegations against Saunders were detailed in two lawsuits filed in B.C. Supreme Court this week.

Both notices of civil claim involve First Nations teens who claim the social worker moved them out of stable housing into independent living situations that saw the Ministry of Children and Family Development provide money for their needs.

They claim Saunders opened joint bank accounts with them and then transferred the funds to himself, leaving them impoverished, homeless and traumatized.

The proposed class action claims the pattern was repeated with dozens of First Nations youth. The lawsuits were filed against Saunders, the ministry and Interior Savings Financial.

B.C.'s representative for children and youth is also investigating, opening files on behalf of 14 teenagers. But the entire process has been complicated by another court action covered by a sealing order and a sweeping publication ban.

Katrine Conroy, the minister responsible for Children and Family Development​, says she supports lifting the ban.

'What's happened to the kids?'

Casimer says time is of the essence.

"What's happened to the kids? Is there any community connections being put into place? Are they being supported?" she asked.

"Because what they've [allegedly] gone through is just totally unacceptable. It's deplorable, really."

The proposed class-action lawsuit was filed in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver. A separate action was filed in B.C. Supreme Court in Kelowna. (David Horemans/CBC)

Casimer says she understands the ministry has been in touch with communities concerned, but is only able to provide limited details because of the legal constraints.

"The community is being contacted, and the family is being contacted," she said. "But they're not being told that that particular young person is part of this overall case."

Casimer noted that First Nations in B.C. have worked with the province and Ottawa to come up with agreements that would keep aboriginal children safe and out of care.

"Then we find out from the media that this has been going on for a year, and we had no idea," she said.

Moskaluk said the RCMP will forward its findings to the B.C. prosecution service at the conclusion of the investigation with a view to determining whether criminal charges are warranted.

Saunders, the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the credit union have yet to file responses to the claims.

None of the allegations 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.