Lawsuits say foster children ripped off by Kelowna social worker

Lawsuits say foster children ripped off by Kelowna social worker
B.C. social worker accused of stealing from kids in Ministry care
B.C.'s representative for children and youth says her office has opened 14 files relating to teenagers who claim they were victims of a social worker accused of siphoning funds from vulnerable First Nations youth.

Jennifer Charlesworth says her office has been aware of allegations against Robert Riley Saunders for several months and has been in constant contact with the Ministry of Children and Family Development about its concerns.

The issue became public Tuesday with the filing of a proposed class action lawsuit claiming Saunders rendered a teenage girl homeless by moving her out of stable care, helping her open a joint bank account and then stealing money provided by the ministry.

The notice of civil claim — which was filed by the Public Guardian and Trustee — says dozens of mostly Aboriginal teens may be affected.

But she says communication with the ministry has been frustrated by a sweeping publication ban and sealing order on a related B.C. Supreme Court file initiated earlier this year.

Charlesworth says she can't comment on the details of that case. She says the ministry sought the publication ban in order to protect the children involved, but her office and the public guardian and trustee are now seeking to have it lifted.

"We want to understand what's the period of time that this has gone on, how have they identified the young people, how are they reaching out to these people and really assessing the fulsome impact," she said.

"We need to get information on the scope and impact in order for us to figure out how best to support these young people and advocate on their behalf."

The proposed class action was one of two suits filed against the ministry, Saunders, and Interior Savings Financial on Tuesday.

The other involves a young Kelowna man who also claims Saunders stole money from him while he was in ministry care. Both involve alleged thefts said to have taken place in 2016.

The ministry has declined to comment on the allegations while they are before the courts. A spokesperson for Interior Savings Financial said they are aware of the "ongoing investigation" and are co-operating with authorities.

She says she has been assured that Saunders is no longer working with ministry "in any capacity."

The Office of the Representative of Children and Youth has the responsibility to provide individual advocacy for young people under the age of 19 entitled to government services.

Charlesworth says her office has been working on behalf of 14 teenagers. But she has also been trying to assess the systemic allegations.

"When we became aware of this, we raised our concerns with the minister. I've met with the minister on this," she said. "And we will continue to do so."

She says much of what she knows about the allegations comes from the young people themselves. But the sealing order in relation to the ongoing court matter has prevented the full sharing of information.

"We want to make sure that these kids have the advocacy support and that we are seeking remedies and we are doing whatever we can to make sure that they are safe and they are supported and that whatever harm has been caused to them through these actions is addressed."

The proposed class action says the provincial director of child welfare is also at fault; it claims Saunders' team leader didn't hold weekly and monthly consultations that might have flagged issues with the well-being of teenaged clients.

The lead plaintiff says her physical and psychological health have suffered through circumstances that saw her living on the street and vulnerable to exploitation.

The issue of vulnerable youth aging out of foster care without proper support has made headlines in B.C. in recent years and has been an ongoing concern to the representative for children and youth.

"The apparent emotional harm is very hard to hear," she said. "That never ever gets light for me when I see that kind of impact on young people. And there's all sorts of other layers of harm that may well have happened as well."

Saunders, the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the credit union have yet to file responses to the claims.

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

It is a priority for CBC to create a website that is accessible to all Canadians including people with visual, hearing, motor and cognitive challenges.

A civil lawsuit that has been filed in Kelowna claims a social worker stole money from teens in the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

The court papers claim that in early 2016, Robert Riley Saunders had a First Nations youth placed in an independent living arrangement under Ministry care.

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The documents allege Saunders opened a joint bank account with the youth and took some of the money for his own purposes.

The financial institution where Saunders did his banking is also being named a defendant in the case for failing to recognize Saunders’ banking irregularities.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development and the Director of Child Welfare were also named as defendants in the case for not adequately overseeing Saunders’ actions, and is facing some serious questions.

“My response is there’s a publication ban on this case. I’ve been advised that I can’t speak to it, which, I’m sure, is as frustrating for me as it is for you,” Katrine Conroy, Minister of Children and Family Development said outside of the B.C. legislature on Wednesday. “As soon as it is lifted, and our lawyers are working on that, I will be able to share as much information as I can.”

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The notice of claim also alleges Saunders engaged in the same and similar activities in respect of dozens of other minors in his care, most of whom are Aboriginal children.

Attempts by Global News to contact Robert Riley Saunders were unsuccessful. His profiles have been removed from social media sites.

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