A plea deal involving a former Kelowna social worker who embezzled nearly $600,000 from vulnerable youth under his care is being harshly criticized by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
On Monday, Robert Riley Saunders pled to guilty to fraud over $5,000, breach of trust and using a forged documents.
Arrested in Alberta in early December, Saunders was originally facing 13 charges, including 10 counts of fraud over $5,000, but wound up pleading guilty to those three counts.
On Tuesday, B.C.’s First Nations Leadership Council said it was frustrated to learn of Saunders’ plea deal.
“The power and privilege evident in this plea deal is beyond frustrating,” said Chief Don Tom, vice president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
“This man spent over 10 years intentionally and strategically preying upon vulnerable youth for his personal gain, managing to siphon nearly $600,000 from 102 youth in government care – almost all of whom were Indigenous.”
Saunders was employed as a social worker by the Ministry of Children and Family Development, though the Crown alleged that Saunders had used a forged university diploma.
Tom continued, saying, “He abused his position of authority as their social worker to open bank accounts in their names and to steal their money. He witnessed firsthand how many of these youth ended up homeless, sexually exploited, and abused in vulnerable situations as they tried to have their own basic needs met and he continued without a second thought.”
Calling Saunders an “evil man,” Tom also said “Today the (in)justice system once again has told us that Indigenous lives don’t matter there. We stand with his victims and their families as they are left to process this disgusting deal.”
Last November, a multi-million dollar settlement was reached between Saunders’ victims and the provincial government.
According to the province, terms of the settlement included payments of $25,000 to all lawsuit members and an additional $44,000 for Indigenous children.
Further, victims could apply for elevated damages for increased harms, up to a maximum of $250,000.
The regional chief for the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, Terry Teegee, said “we see another situation where the lives of Indigenous children are dismissed, and the interests of a privileged white man are protected. As long as these systems and structures continue to uphold genocide under the guise of justice, reconciliation will forever remain a buzzword.”
The B.C. Prosecution Service says a hearing will take place next spring, March 21-29. The hearing is being held because Crown and defence don’t agree on all of the facts relating to the charge.
When the hearing is finished, a sentencing hearing will be scheduled.
“This despicable human being, and the systems that protected him, cannot be permitted to continue to avoid responsibility while his victims and their family members continue to suffer,” said Cheryl Casimer of the First Nations Summit.
“Even with this plea deal, we continue to call upon the courts to use the full extent of the law to hold Saunders accountable.”