The sentencing begins for man who stole funding from vulnerable BC youth as an unqualified social worker

The sentencing began Monday for a man in Kelowna, BC, who falsified his qualifications as a social worker and drained money from dozens of vulnerable foster children over the course of his nearly 20-year career.

Robert Riley Saunders sat next to his lawyer in the BC Supreme Court as the case goes through what is known as a Gardiner hearing, which must be concluded before the judge can rule on Saunders’ verdict.

Saunders pleaded guilty last September to fraud and breach of trust for stealing money to help children in his custody. He also admitted to having the province act on a forged document because he lied about his qualifications for social work.

Formerly young in care says he was misled

Former foster children, the majority of whom are natives, have accused Saunders of steering them away from stable, loving homes on the streets or into more independent life situations when they were children.

They said he then used joint bank accounts to take public funds for himself when it was meant to cover their care.

The first witness to speak during the case on Monday was a former young man who had Saunders as a guardian.

Now in his early 20s, the man said Saunders never told him the full range of financial support available to him, offering only smaller coupons a few times a month to cover food and clothing.

“I felt like a stepchild. Every time I brought any kind of trouble to the table, it would quickly be swept away,” said the man, who can only be identified as “H”.

“H” said he also remembered opening a joint bank account with Saunders in an Interior Savings Credit Union branch, but felt he was in a “dubious situation” and never used the account.

After leaving the foster family, “H” said a new worker told him he was eligible for an independent housing scheme that would provide him with hundreds more in financial support to help cover expenses like schooling and rent.

Former colleague speaks in court

Later Monday, a social worker working with Saunders in the Department of Child and Family Development also spoke in court. She said she remembered Saunders buying herself a new boat, a new truck and a new home in Kelowna – all on what should have been a social worker’s salary.

The former colleague, who was acting team leader the year before Saunders was fired, said she went to management after discovering that independent life checks – worth $ 579 each – were sent twice a month to a young man with Saunders’ case load, who was actually in jail.

I said to [Saunders], ‘Something does not look right. You have to come forward now … ‘And he went on to say,’ No, there’s nothing, just let it be, let it be, ‘said the colleague.

The case goes through the Gardiner hearing so the court can determine the facts of the case, which – if proven by the Crown – will affect the severity of the Saunders judgment.

Saunders was fired from the ministry in 2018. Many clients claim they were left homeless as a result of his behavior, while some said they were subjected to physical and sexual abuse and ended up living with addiction.

The province settled a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit last year in the case.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs said more than 100 victims have turned up rather than file claims. Since anyone in Saunders’ custody is entitled to receive between $ 25,000 and $ 250,000 in compensation, the province could pay out as much as $ 15 million in total compensation.

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