A former Kelowna social worker who pleaded guilty to siphoning thousands of dollars from the province in the name of vulnerable youth in his care said Thursday that his schemes were “opportunistic.”
In the fourth day of Robert Riley Saunders’s sentencing hearing, Crown counsel Heather Magnin was able to glean more information from the admitted fraudster about how he stole money from the young people who looked to him for support.
Saunders said that during his time working as a caseworker with the Ministry of Children and Family Development, there was 24 youth in his care that he opened joint bank accounts with, so he could misappropriate funds designated for them.
He also had cheques cut for various reasons, and several schemes included getting the Ministry to sign off on housing fees that the youth never saw. Magnin indicated that she believed there were also start-up funds for foster kids who aged out of care that never made it past Saunders. And she mentioned one case, where the province transferred funds for something as basic as driving school, and Saunders managed to get those dollars as well.
In the latter case, half the funds went to the driving teacher and he got a cheque for the other half, though it’s an act he only half-heartedly agreed to, when asked about it by Magnin.
“I don’t recall but if it says it did, I will agree to that,” Saunders said, at times taking a defensive stance when questioned about the work he did.
“I’ve acknowledged, admitted and (pleaded) guilty to the misappropriation already.”
Magnin then said he was very opportunistic in finding out how he could get the most funds for himself.
“I wouldn’t disagree,” Saunders said.
Magnin pointed out that Saunders knew the youth in his care well, many of whom he earlier testified struggled with everything from sexual to physical abuse, and still his focus was identifying “multiple ways” he could get funds to himself, not them.
“I agree, yes,” Saunders said.
Last year, Saunders pleaded guilty to fraud over $5,000, breach of trust and using a forged document. He originally faced 13 criminal charges, including 10 counts of fraud over $5,000 and breach of trust by a public officer, but when guilty pleas are entered in advance of a trial, the Crown tends to reduce charges facing the accused. He’s currently in a Gardiner hearing, which is held when parties can’t agree on all of the facts relating to the charge that the accused has already pleaded guilty to and need to be weighed in sentencing.
While the criminal matter is ongoing, a multi-million-dollar settlement for Saunders’ victims was reached with the B.C. government and approved by Justice Alan Ross of the Supreme Court of B.C. on Oct. 23, 2020.
The civil suits claimed Saunders would open joint bank accounts with the youth in his care, and then withdraw government money meant to be used for their care for his own use.
Saunders allegedly stole up to $500,000 over the years, and many youths in his care claim his actions left them homeless and susceptible to exploitation and drug addiction.