More children stolen from

More children stolen from
Childrens advocate investigating 14 files on social workers alleged theft from teens
B.C.’s children's watchdog says 14 advocacy files have been opened, claiming a social worker stole money from aboriginal children – and there could be more victims. 

“These kinds of cases are heartbreaking because it is one person’s actions that can cause tremendous harm to these young people,” she said. 

Two lawsuits claim Kelowna-based Robert Riley Saunders misappropriated money that was meant for aboriginal children in government care. A class-action lawsuit filed in Vancouver involves numerous underage plaintiffs, and a civil claim filed in Kelowna involves a West Kelowna resident. 

“The ministry is eager to share information with us, but have unfortunately not been able to,” she said, due to a sealing order on the file.

Even though Charlesworth has significant power to request files, Attorney General’s Ministry lawyers have said nothing can be shared.

“We’ve been hampered with gathering the information to understand the scope and duration,” she said. 

While it is not clear how long Saunders was in his role as a social worker, Charlesworth says it has been for quite some time. “There have been concerns raised in the past,” she said.

Okanagan College confirmed Wednesday night that Saunders now works in adult special education in a contract term position.

“I think the most important thing is that every effort be made by the government to provide the support and services to these young people who can’t go back in time, but help them go forward in such a way that they receive the support to address the emotional harm and financial harm,” Charlesworth said.

Anyone who believes they might have fallen victim to Saunders is asked to the office of the Representative of Children and Youth at 1-800-476-3933.

A Kelowna social worker accused of stealing money from aboriginal children under care of the provincial government is now working at Okanagan College in a role that again places him in a position of authority over vulnerable people.

Public affairs director Allan Coyle confirmed Wednesday that Robert Riley Saunders is employed in a contract term position at the college in adult special education.

A pair of unsettling lawsuits claim Saunders misappropriated money over multiple years that was meant for aboriginal children while they were in government care.

“We take the safety of our students very seriously, and when we become alert to situations that are cause for concern, we take appropriate action,” said Coyle.

A class-action lawsuit filed in Vancouver involves numerous underage plaintiffs. The civil claim filed in Kelowna involves just one – a West Kelowna resident. Both lawsuits are nearly identical in their allegations.

When called at his number in the college directory, Saunders answered the phone, but said "sorry" and hung up when Castanet identified itself.

Lawyer Michael Patterson, who is representing the West Kelowna plaintiff, says the amount stolen from his client totals $47,000, and there could be more than 50 victims.

“In early 2016, Saunders moved the plaintiff from a stable home environment into an unstable residential or independent living arrangement in order to make the plaintiff eligible for payment of certain financial benefits by the ministry,” the lawsuit claims.

“Saunders then opened a joint bank account with the plaintiff at Interior Savings. Saunders stole the funds deposited by the ministry into a joint bank account by moving them to his own bank account at Interior Savings and by paying his personal expenses by electronic transfer from the joint bank account.”

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.

FacebookMoreCharlesworth says she cant 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 whats 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.

InWithForwardMoreThe 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.

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.

Roman Bodnarchuk/ShutterstockMore”When we became aware of this, we raised our concerns with the minister. Ive 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 didnt 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 theres 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.