A former Kelowna social worker who pleaded guilty to defrauding youth in his care appeared in court for the first day of a week-long sentencing hearing on Monday (March 21).
Robert Riley Saunders was indicted on 13 charges in December 2020, including 10 counts of fraud over $5,000, one count of theft over $5,000, one count of breach of trust and one count of uttering a forged document. His guilty plea came after the resolution of a class-action lawsuit in 2020.
The suit accused Saunders of stealing the funds deposited into accounts of youth in his care, leaving them homeless and subject to abuse, as well as vulnerable to substance use disorders.
Saunders has entered a guilty plea to three of the 13 charges. However, Saunders did not agree to some of the facts the Crown alleges and a Gardiner hearing is now taking place to determine the validity of those facts.
The Crown alleged that Saunders set up joint bank accounts for many of the youth in his care, which he used to steal funds from the Ministry of Children and Family Development that were meant for their food and shelter.
He is also accused of using a forged university diploma to get a job as a social worker. According to the Crown, he claimed to have a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Manitoba despite having no social work credentials.
Due to several publication bans put in place for the hearing, witnesses cannot be named.
During Monday’s court proceeding, a witness alleged they were under Saunders’ guardianship while their father was unable to provide adequate care from the age of 15 to 18.
They asked many times to move out of the foster homes and back home with the injured father.
Eventually, Saunders allowed the youth to return and live with the father. According to the witness, Saunders did not provide the youth with the proper financial or social support during this time.
They also alleged that when they brought up financial and social hardship, Saunders “swept it under the rug,” and allegedly did not want to deal with it. The youth also alleges that at times when they requested their weekly voucher of $100-$120 used to buy food for themself and their disabled father, they were denied.
During this time, Saunders took the youth to the bank to open a joint bank account. They said that they never accessed any funds from the joint account because they were not aware of funds being deposited into the account and said that it felt “iffy” to use the account.
A former colleague of Saunders who is employed as a social worker in Kelowna also testified at the hearing. She stated that Saunders is “self-centred” and was a poor worker. She said that she and Saunders received the same salary but he lived a “wealthy lifestyle” of large homes, frequent vacations, new luxury cars and boats as a single father.
The former colleague said that youth in situations like that of the witness is subject to more financial aid and resources than were being provided.
While under the guardianship of Saunders, the youth witnesses stated they struggled with substance abuse and had difficulty securing a permanent secure shelter.
Of the 107 alleged victims of Saunders, 90 identify as Indigenous. Two are dead and four have settled in separation actions. Several youths have experienced hardship allegedly due, in part, to the actions of Saunders during their youth. Many of his victims have suffered from substance use disorders, homelessness and physical and mental abuse.