B.C. admits to liability in civil claim alleging social worker siphoned funds
Published Thursday, December 13, 2018 5:09PM PST
Riley Saunders is seen in this Facebook photo from 2017.
VANCOUVER - The B.C. government has admitted to negligence and fraud by a social worker accused of siphoning off thousands of dollars in financial benefits from children in care.
The Ministry of Children and Family Development says in its response to a notice of civil claim filed in November by the public guardian and trustee that it admits “vicarious liability for the acts and omissions” of Robert Riley Saunders, a former social worker in Kelowna.
The notice of claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver alleges that Saunders misappropriated funds and failed to provide adequate support to children in care.
Saunders is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, but he has not filed a statement of defence and none of the allegations against him have been proven. Attempts to reach Saunders have not been successful and it is not known if he has legal counsel.
Jason Gratl, who filed the proposed class-action lawsuit, says the case will continue against Saunders and Interior Savings Financial Services Ltd., which has not filed a statement of defence in the case
Interior Savings could not immediately be reached for comment, but in a statement on Nov. 7 it said the financial institution takes its fiduciary responsibilities seriously. It added that it could not address the specific allegations because of privacy laws.
None of the allegations against Interior Savings have been proven in court.
In a news release, the ministry says it agrees that general damages and court-ordered interest are appropriate for the plaintiff, who is not named in the lawsuit but is identified as a First Nations youth. The youth, who is still in provincial government care, is also the representative plaintiff in the proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of all youth whose funds or benefits were allegedly taken by Saunders.
Gratl said in an interview he will contact the province to determine what happens next.
“In my view the next step is that my office and potential class members will collaborate with the province to negotiate an appropriate process for assessing the harm done to each of the children and compensating the children in proportion to the harm caused,” he said.
The government says in its response to the notice of civil claim that Saunders' employment with the province was terminated in May.
“The province admits Mr. Saunders was negligent ... committed misfeasance in public office, fraud and breached fiduciary duties owed to (the children) and further admits that the (children) suffered harm as a result,” the document says.
The ministry says it has taken steps to review financial controls and ensure funds are not misappropriated, and it has offered supports and services including counselling to the children and youth who were affected since the allegations came to light.
In its news release, the government says it will respond “in due course” to separate but related court actions that are underway, and that its response on Thursday was only to the specific action filed by the public guardian and trustee.
A second lawsuit has been filed against the ministry, Saunders and Interior Savings on behalf of a youth who The Canadian Press is not naming.
None of the allegations in that lawsuit have been proven in court and no statements of defence have been filed.
The lawsuits allege that Saunders “engaged in the same and similar unlawful and inexcusable activities in respect to dozens of other children in his care, most of whom are Aboriginal children.”
Gratl alleges that as much as $40,000 each was taken from children between the ages of 15 and 19 and that the fraud had been going on for a minimum of four years.
The statements of claim allege that in early 2016, Saunders moved the children in order to make them eligible for financial benefits from the ministry and he opened joint bank accounts for each youth.
They allege Saunders was aware of the youths' vulnerability and aware that he exercised parental control over them.
The lawsuits say that Saunders exercised complete control over every aspect of the plaintiffs' lives, including where they would live, access to family members, their cultural heritage, services and financial help.
Interior Savings helped Saunders by having the children sign forms opening joint accounts but didn't tell them that the accounts were with Saunders, the statements of claim allege.
For the class-action lawsuit filed in Vancouver to go ahead, it must first be certified by a judge.