More than 100 alleged victims of B.C. social worker to be compensated: settlement
VANCOUVER -- The B.C. government has admitted to a pattern of neglect and theft by a Kelowna social worker in a proposed settlement with more than 100 vulnerable children in ministry care, most of them Indigenous.
Court documents allege Robert Riley Saunders used joint bank accounts to take money from children in ministry care — children who were often left homeless, were subject to abuse by others, and went on to have drug addictions.
“The province admits that Saunders harmed children in the Director’s care for whom he had responsibility in his capacity as a social worker…This harm includes neglect, misappropriation of funds and failure to plan for the children’s welfare and, with respect to Indigenous children, failure to take steps to preserve their cultural identities,” the agreement says.
“Saunders had a responsibility to ensure that Indigenous children received guidance and encouragement to maintain their cultural identity and should have taken steps to preserve their kinship ties and cultural identities. Saunders did not do so."
Saunders has faced several lawsuits from children and has not responded. CTV News reached out to a number related to him but it has since been disconnected.
The agreement covers children in care from 2001 until Saunders was fired in 2018. Each child will receive $25,000, without proof of loss.
Every Indigenous member of the class will get a basic payment of $44,000, to reflect a pattern by Saunders of “neglect of his duty to support Indigenous children to learn about and practice the child’s indigenous traditions, customs and language and to belong to the child’s Indigenous community,” the documents say.
The Ministry estimates there are 102 people in the class. Only 17 are not Indigenous.
Class members can get elevated damages for being made homeless without funds. Some children were sexually assaulted and exploited by other people while inadequately supported, the document says. Others were physically assaulted, had delayed education, or suffered self-harm, trauma or substance use disorders while inadequately housed, according to the agreement.
But the documents accuse Saunders of a deception that goes back to when he was first hired at the ministry.
An anonymous tip to the law firm representing the Public Guardian and Trustee in 2019 suggested that Saunders had forged his university degree. The lawyer passed this information to the Ministry of Children and Family Development, who asked the University of Manitoba for more information.
“I need to know if Mr. Saunders was ever a student at U of M,” wrote deputy director of child welfare Alex Scheiber on March 28, 2019, according to copies of the correspondence filed at court. “I would appreciate you treating my request as a high priority as the information is relevant to a criminal investigation and civil claims underway.”
“I can confirm that Riley Saunders…attended the University of Manitoba but did not earn a degree,” wrote the university’s associate registrar. “The parchment you sent is a forgery.”
Saunders began working for the Ministry of Children and Families on Nov. 4, 1996, and was described as having “completed all the required training, has a Bachelor of Social Work and is therefore eligible to be reclassified.”
Saunders was reprimanded in 2004 for a perceived conflict of interest for “personally withholding a client’s money and… deliberately not involving a third party to oversee a client’s financial transactions,” the document says.
And in 2005, he was criticized in a performance review for a weak area of “can be seen to be disinterested or not showing appropriate sensitivity to the Aboriginal culture/history,” the documents say.
The documents also include positive reviews, including, “As a Guardianship worker Riley has shown a keenness to learn and works well with the young people he is responsible for… Riley has taken on a student this past year and appears to take this responsibility seriously. He enjoyed his role as a mentor/teacher and does a good job as such.”
The class members would have to have been assigned to Saunders and be under 19 for more than 90 days after April 1, 2001.
The maximum award for any class member is $250,000, with lawyer Jason Gratl for the Public Guardian and Trustee estimating the total payout of tax funds is in the range of $15 million. No charges have been laid and none of the allegations against Saunders have been tested in court.