New lawsuit alleges former Kelowna social worker stole from Indigenous girl in care

Click to play video 'Civil lawsuit brings new allegations against former Kelowna social worker' Civil lawsuit brings new allegations against former Kelowna social worker
A civil claim recently filed against B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Family Development and several other parties brings new allegations against a former Kelowna social worker. It also details a traumatic childhood for a young girl allegedly exposed to repeated abuse in the system. Jules Knox reports. – Dec 29, 2019

A lawsuit filed in B.C. Supreme Court contains new allegations against a former Kelowna social worker accused of stealing from an Indigenous teenager in his care and defrauding taxpayers.

The notice of civil claim was filed by a 19-year-old Indigenous woman at the Vancouver law courts on Dec. 20 and names Robert Saunders as one of the multiple defendants.

Saunders, who is already named in several civil lawsuits, is accused of opening a joint account with the teenager, who was under the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), at Interior Savings Credit Union in March 2017.

Saunders used the account to deposit cheques made out to the plaintiff that “were intended to provide the plaintiff with funds for food, clothing and shelter,” according to court documents.

“Saunders then transferred the plaintiff’s funds to his own account and used the funds to pay for trips, vehicles, and his own mortgage for himself and his family,” the suit alleges.

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New developments in civil case against Kelowna social worker accused of stealing from children – Dec 28, 2018

The court documents allege Saunders closed the joint account in January 2018 and took the remaining funds for himself.

“Saunders was aware of the Plaintiff’s vulnerability and aware that he exercised parental control over the Plaintiff, and breached his fiduciary obligations to the plaintiff to act in the plaintiff’s best interests and to make the plaintiff’s safety and well-being paramount considerations.”

Banking irregularities

The suit alleges that Interior Savings failed to recognize suspicious and problematic transactions after Saunders opened the joint account with the troubled teen under his care.

“Interior Savings knew or ought to have known that this would allow Saunders to transfer funds in the plaintiff’s name without her consent,” the suit alleges.

The suit alleges that Saunders opened numerous joint accounts with children known to be the subject of a continuing custody order.

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Only Saunders had access to the accounts, as the children were not provided with debit or ATM cards and did not have electronic access, according to the notice of civil claim.

READ MORE: B.C. social worker accused of stealing from kids in Ministry care

“Interior Savings allowed Saunders to empty out and close numerous joint accounts in January of 2018 in a highly unorthodox series of transactions that were manifestly nefarious, after the Ministry had provided Interior Savings with more than sufficient information to put them on additional notice that Saunders was engaged in problematic transactions,” the suit alleges.

“Saunders did not act in good faith in his dealings with the plaintiff. He knew that he did not have lawful authority to deprive the plaintiff of funds and benefits designated for the plaintiff,” the suit says.

The suit alleges that Saunders took advantage of numerous other Indigenous children in care.

“Saunders engaged in the same and similar unlawful and inexcusable activities in respect of dozens of other children in his care, most of whom were Indigenous children,” alleges the notice of civil claim.

Tumultuous history in foster care

The lawsuit also makes a series of allegations against the plaintiff’s biological father, former foster parents and senior management at the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) alleging years of abuse and neglect while the youth was growing up, in and out of the foster care system.

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The child, who was born in southeast B.C. in 2000, was removed from the custody of her biological mother as a 3-year-old. She was placed with her first foster parents under a temporary custody order.

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According to court documents, the child was exposed to violence and excessive force and was sexually abused by another foster child in the home.

The Ministry discovered evidence of the sexual abuse in August 2003 didn’t remove her from the home until December 2003, the suit alleges.  She was placed in the sole custody of her biological father. Her biological mother had died in a car accident.

Her father had a history of domestic violence, according to the notice of civil claim, and the child allegedly experienced emotional and physical abuse for the next 12 years of her life.

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READ MORE: Ministry responds to allegations that social worker stole from kids in government care

The child was allegedly punched or hit in the face as a form of discipline and her father “engaged in dramatic displays of violence, including breaking the plaintiff’s personal items and smashing her computer,” the civil claim said.

The court documents allege MCFD failed to remove the child from the household until January 2015 and then placed her in an unfit home.

She was assigned new foster parents with “severe and chronic substance use disorder and were not suitable, adequate or fit to act as foster parents to the plaintiff or any other person,” according to court documents.

After being refused a new placement, the girl, then 15, ran away and was essentially homeless for 10 months.

“The plaintiff threatened and attempted suicide to the knowledge of the director and the province. When the plaintiff asked for support and funds for shelter and food, and asked for an independent living arrangement, the social workers assigned to the plaintiff accused her of being greedy, self-serving and manipulative,” the documents allege.

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At the age of 16, the teen gave birth to her first child. The province apprehended the baby because the teen was homeless and placed the child into the care of the same foster family she had run away from.

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The teen and the baby were formally removed from the foster home in October 2016 after the foster father overdosed on injection opioid’s in a child’s bedroom within the residence, according to the suit.

In June 2017, the teen gave birth to her second child, who was also removed from her custody.

The suit alleges MCFD failed to provide the teen with suitable food, clothing or shelter “even though the director and the province knew that the plaintiff was essentially homeless.”

The teen developed a substance use disorder and was sexually exploited, according to the notice of civil claim. She was offered an independent living arrangement in February 2018.

Seeking damages

The teen is seeking general, aggravated and punitive damages from Robert Saunders, the Ministry of Children and Family Development, the Director of Child, Family and Community Services, the Interior Savings Credit Union and two other social workers, as well as unknown Ministry supervisors and executive directors listed as John Doe and Jane Doe.

The teen is also seeking a court injunction requiring the defendants to provide financial, safety, health, therapeutic and educational supports, tracing and accounting of all funds allegedly misappropriated by Saunders and a no-contact order.

READ MORE: B.C. admits ‘vicarious liability’ for ‘fraud’ committed by Kelowna social worker

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The suit claims the Ministry’s failure “to respond to the risks and harms visited on the plaintiff in a timely way are reprehensible and outrageous and warrant an award of punitive damages.”

As for the financial institution, the suit alleges: “Interior Savings is liable in negligence and for breach of contract in failing to implement adequate safeguards to ensure that Saunders could not unlawfully convert the plaintiff’s funds, and for failing to notify the plaintiff of the suspicious circumstances and transactions.”

The defendants have not filed responses to the notice of civil claim and none of the allegations have been proven in court.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development said it can’t comment as the matter is before the courts.

Class action lawsuit

The teen is being represented by Vancouver lawyer Jason Gratl, who is also spearheading a proposed class-action lawsuit against Saunders.

He told Global News his client is unavailable for comment, but added, “it is hard to imagine a system more ruthless than to make a child homeless and then, when she becomes pregnant, takes away her own children on the basis that she lacks the resources to take care of them,” he said in an email.

“The frequency at which atrocities like this occur raises the question of whether the province has lost the moral authority to apprehend any children at all.”

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As for the status of the class-action lawsuit, Gratl said “we are working on a comprehensive settlement agreement.”

The suit has not been certified by the courts and Gratl said its premature to say how many plaintiffs are involved.

He did, however, confirm Saunders allegedly took $400,000 in total from approximately 15 youth in care during his time as a social worker.

Saunders history of misconduct

Last November Kelowna RCMP revealed it was investigating allegations that a former social worker took money from teens in his care, although the accused has not been criminally charged.

“The Kelowna RCMP can confirm that it has an ongoing investigation involving allegations of fraud being committed against children that were under the care of a social worker,” Cpl. Dan Moskaluk said in a news release at the time.

The disclosure of the investigation came in the wake of several civil lawsuits filed by children under the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development against Saunders.

Attempts to contact Saunders after the first two claims were filed were unsuccessful.  He removed his profile from social media sites.

Last December, in response to one of the claims, the Ministry admitted that a social worker defrauded a child of funds and ultimately caused the plaintiff to suffer.

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“The Province admits vicarious liability for the acts and omissions of Mr. Saunders,” the filing stated.

The statement said Saunders was fired in May 2018.

Government action in wake of Saunders allegations

Last November, the ministry acknowledged it became aware of and referred financial irregularities to the Office of the Comptroller General (OCG) in December 2017, saying “steps were taken” the following January to ensure the well-being of youth who may have been affected.

It says the Office of the Provincial Director of Child Welfare launched a special review in the wake of the incident, that the Public Guardian and Trustee was notified in March and that reports for all affected children were shared with the province’s Representative for Children and Youth (RCY).

The ministry further said the OCG launched an investigation in January to determine if there was evidence of fraud and hired a financial consulting firm to review internal financial controls.

A key recommendation of that probe was the implementation of a new system that would prevent a single staff member from initiating and printing cheques, the ministry said.

The ministry said a second review was launched into how it handles contracting and payments, along with a strategy to cut down on the use of cheques entirely.

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—With files from Kimberly Davidson, Simon Little and Doris Bregolisse