VANCOUVER -- The head of the professional association for social workers in British Columbia says the recent arrest of former Kelowna caseworker Robert Riley Saunders underscores a fundamental problem with the way the provincial Ministry of Children and Family Development operates.

Saunders was arrested in Alberta earlier this month and is charged with multiple counts of fraud, as well as theft, breach of trust and forgery, all stemming from his more than two decades working for the ministry. 

The province has already settled a class action lawsuit involving more than 100 of Saunders' alleged victims, admitting in the settlement that harm was caused to children in the ministry's care.

Michael Crawford, president of the BC Association of Social Workers, told CTV News the harm Saunders allegedly caused could have been avoided if Saunders had been required to register with the B.C. College of Social Workers as a condition of his employment.

According to the province's Social Work Act, all social workers in B.C. must be registered with the college, but Crawford said people working for the Ministry of Children and Family Development are not.

That's because the ministry, which is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the act, has decided to exempt its own employees, he said.

Court documents show that Saunders submitted a fake bachelor of social work degree with his initial application to the ministry in 1996. If he had been required to register with the college, the false degree would have been discovered, Crawford said.

"If (the ministry) had the requirement that they would only hire social workers if they were registered, he would have had to apply to the college," Crawford said of Saunders' case. "The college would have said, 'Thank you very much for giving us that parchment, that copy of your degree, Mr. Saunders, but we will get it directly from the registrar of the university.'"

CTV News Vancouver reached out to the ministry for more information on the Saunders case and the complaints Crawford and his organization - which promotes social work as a profession in B.C. - have about the ministry's hiring policies.

A ministry spokesperson provided responses to questions from CTV News via email.

"It's deeply upsetting that anyone who intends to work with vulnerable people might lie about their qualifications," the spokesperson said. "Frontline staff who work with vulnerable populations must be subject to a high degree of scrutiny. (The Ministry) is contracting a professional organization to ensure we have the proper oversight of credentials. We are working to determine the scope of this new program before going out to competitive market."

Regarding the assertion that the ministry should stop exempting itself from the Social Work Act's requirements, the ministry spokesperson acknowledged a need to improve the system, adding that it's important to maintain "diverse hiring practices."

"Recent events have highlighted the need to enhance certain oversight and accountability measures," the spokesperson said. "We are working closely with the B.C. College of Social Workers, Indigenous partners and stakeholders to identify how we can adapt and improve our system. We need to do this while also maintaining diverse hiring practices that support children, youth, family and community-specific needs, including in Indigenous and rural communities."

Most of Robert Riley Saunders' alleged victims were Indigenous youth in ministry care, and Indigenous leaders in the province have been vocal in demanding justice.  

In a statement issued after his arrest, the First Nations Leadership Council of B.C. highlighted the disproportionate number of children in ministry care who are Indigenous and said the case is indicative of systemic changes that are needed.

Asked by CTV News about the specific issue of mandatory registration for people doing social work for the ministry, First Nations Summit political executive Cheryl Casimer said she supports such a change, but added that it's far from the only one needed.

"I think just as a whole there needs to be some kind of program or training for social workers to become more aware of and understanding of Indigenous issues," she said.

'Deprofessionalizing care'

Crawford described the ministry as reluctant to change its practices in part because of shortage of workers.

"They have a lot of problems recruiting and retaining staff, and I think there's a lot of things they can do about recruitment and retention, but they chose to take what I would say is a very easy route," the association president said.

That route, he said, was to "broaden the applicant pool" by hiring people with undergraduate degrees in things other than social work to do jobs that - to Crawford and his organization - are still social work.

He said that decision amounts to "deprofessionalizing care in the ministry."

"Their response is that they're quite happy to do that."

In an email to CTV News, the ministry spokesperson didn't describe the situation in those terms, but did note that care workers come from "a range of academic backgrounds."

"This helps ensure they are best able to serve the diverse needs of families and communities," the spokesperson said. "We recognize the importance of ensuring high-quality social work practice and we acknowledge the need for strong oversight measures. However, these must be developed in concert with a number of partners – including the BC Association of Social Workers. That’s what we’re working on now."

On the fact that change is needed, Indigenous stakeholders, the ministry and the association seem to be in agreement.

What the scope and nature of that change will be remains to be seen. Casimer, of the First Nations Summit, said she would like to see a public inquiry into the ministry's handling of the Saunders case.

"He was able to manipulate a system that obviously had some weaknesses in it to allow for that to have taken place over a span of a decade," said Casimer. "So, somebody within the ministry needs to be held responsible and held accountable."