British Columbia

Man who faked social worker qualifications subject of new class-action lawsuit

A Kelowna man who lied about his qualifications as a social worker is facing a new proposed class-action lawsuit for allegedly failing to inform a former client about the existence of a program designed to help young adults age out of the foster care system.

Lead plaintiff claims Robert Riley Saunders and others failed to inform him of educational program

Robert Riley Saunders is being sued as part of a proposed class-action lawsuit which claims he failed to inform former foster children about the existence of a program designed to help them as they age out of care. (Facebook)

A Kelowna man who lied about his qualifications as a social worker is facing a new proposed class-action lawsuit for allegedly failing to inform a former client about the existence of a program designed to help young adults age out of the foster care system.

In a lawsuit filed in B.C. Supreme Court earlier this week, Zachary Alphonse claims Robert Riley Saunders and a colleague at the Ministry of Children and Family Development were required to tell him about the Young Adults Program when he turned 19.

Instead, Alphonse, who is now 29, claims he only learned about the program's existence when the ministry contacted him last summer. But by then, he was too old to collect benefits that could have provided him with up to 48 months of financial support a decade earlier.

"If [Alphonse] had been informed of the existence of and his eligibility for the Young Adults Program and had been provided with assistance in applying for the program, [he] would have started his adult education and advanced his work goals at a better pace," the lawsuit reads.

'Kind of languished aimlessly'

Saunders has already been the subject of one successful class action, filed on behalf of dozens of former foster children who accused him of isolating them in order to siphon funds meant for their care into his own pocket.

Last summer, the ministry agreed to a multimillion dollar settlement that will see at least 102 former foster children, the majority of them Indigenous, collect thousands of dollars intended to cover both their financial loss and trauma they suffered as a result of Saunders' actions.

The proposed class-action lawsuit is targeted at B.C.'s Ministry of Child and Family Development as well as Robert Riley Saunders. (David Horemans/CBC)

According to court documents filed in relation to the settled claim, Saunders faked a social work degree. 

The Kelowna man is also facing multiple criminal charges of fraud and breach of trust for the same alleged behaviour.

Jason Gratl, the lawyer who represented the first group of claimants, also represents Alphonse. He says the target of the latest lawsuit is primarily the government.

"It turns out the Ministry of Children and Family Development hasn't been telling children about the existence of this adult education program at or near the time they age out, so lots of foster children are falling between the cracks," Gratl told the CBC.

"Not knowing about the program, they kind of languished aimlessly."

'Thousands of former children'

Alphonse claims he became homeless after turning 19 in August 2010. At that point, he says he had only completed Grade 9 and lacked the resources to work on a graduate equivalency degree.

"For a period of approximately one year, [he] could see no future for himself, felt hopeless and unable to advance his interests," the lawsuit reads.

Alphonse claims he began working part-time jobs but was held back by his lack of education. He says he got a technical certification in computer repair at age 27, while working full time.

He now needs only three courses to complete his Grade 12 equivalency in order to graduate from high school.

"We do know there are thousands of former children in care who did not enter the adult education program to which they were entitled, but we don't know exactly the proportion of those who weren't notified of the existence of the program," Gratl says.

"But the general idea of the class action is to encourage the Province of British Columbia by means of a court order to restart the clock on those benefits."

Alphonse is seeking damages which include the cost of future education as well as aggravated and punitive damages.

The ministry has not filed a response to the lawsuit and neither has Saunders.

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.

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