Criminal charges have yet to be laid against a disgraced former social worker in Kelowna, B.C., who is accused of defrauding approximately 100 foster children in his care over a 17-year period.
On Oct. 23, a class-action settlement agreement was approved by a judge between the B.C. government and the victims of Robert “Riley” Saunders.
The terms provide basic payments of $25,000 to $250,000 based on the degree of harm each victim experienced and could cost taxpayers up to $15 million.
Saunders is accused of seeking out and exploiting mostly high-risk Indigenous youth while overseeing their care in a guardianship role from 2001 until he was fired in 2018.
The scheme worked by moving foster children into independent living situations and then opening joint bank accounts to siphon government aid earmarked for their care.
“The funds that he stole from foster children in his care were intended to be used for essentials, that is shelter, food, clothing. And deprived of those funds, the children were left homeless and destitute,” Jason Gratl, the victim’s lawyer, told Global News.
Court documents filed by the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the Director of Child welfare said Saunders admitted to the “conversion of funds” in March 2018.
A forensic auditor detected Saunders’ fraud and the ministry notified RCMP, the filings state.
But two-and-a-half years later, Saunders has not faced any criminal charges.
The BC Prosecution Service said it received the RCMP’s criminal investigation in April and that it continues to weigh the possibility of criminal charges against Saunders.
“My own personal view is that the criminal case against Riley Saunders, while strong, is a complicated one,” said Gratl.
“So with 100 victims and with various potential crimes, including fraud, financial misconduct on one hand, and failing to provide necessities to children in his care, it is a very complicated charge approval context and I’m sympathetic to the criminal justice branch.”
Meanwhile, the ministry said it has tightened its financial controls and the province is contracting a professional organization to verify the educational credentials of social workers.
Saunders obtained his job with the ministry by submitting forged university degrees, court documents say.
“Our registrar provided a letter to the court that confirmed the degrees he alleges to have received are fake,” a spokesperson with the University of Manitoba told Global News.
Saunders was not required to register with the BC College of Social Workers, the industry’s regulatory body, because MCFD employees are exempt.
Michael Crawford, president of the BC Association of Social Workers, said the college may have detected Saunders’ deception and been able to prevent the years of turmoil he caused vulnerable youth in his care.
“There are so many protections to the public available through professional regulatory colleges, and that might indeed have prevented all of the harm that Saunders is alleged to have done,” he said.
“It might have been picked up on by the College of Social Workers in British Columbia who require that transcripts and degree parchments come to them directly from the institutions so that applicants can’t interfere with them.”
Meanwhile, Gratl said the massive settlement agreement did not achieve institutional reform within the ministry.
“Unfortunately, the settlement agreement prioritized the financial well-being of class members in a way that is regrettable. Certainly, more could be done in the direction of institutional reform,” he said.
Saunders vanished from Kelowna after allegations of his misconduct surfaced in 2018.
Gratl said his law office has received numerous tips that he may be hopping from job to job and is travelling east, but his current whereabouts are unknown.