Kelowna courthouse. - Image Credit: Capital News file photo

Lawsuits allege B.C. government social worker stole from foster children

The lawsuits allege Indigenous children were removed from a stable environment to an unstable living arrangement so that their benefits could be stolen from them.

Lawsuits have been filed on behalf of two youth in British Columbia Supreme Court alleging a provincial social worker siphoned off thousands of dollars in financial benefits from children in care.

Both actions name social worker Robert Riley Saunders, the Ministry of Children and Family Development and Interior Savings Financial Services Ltd., alleging the Indigenous children were removed from a stable environment to an unstable living arrangement so that their benefits could be stolen from them.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in Vancouver is a proposed class-action, alleging there were other children in care whom Saunders misappropriated funds or benefits or failed to provide adequate support, care of guardianship. The second lawsuit was filed in Kelowna on behalf of a youth who The Canadian Press is not naming.

None of the allegations has been proven in court and no statements of defence have been filed.

Saunders couldn’t be reached for comment, while the Children’s Ministry said in a statement it had no comment as the matter was before the court.

Corinne Johnson, manager of community engagement at Interior Savings, says in a statement that the institution takes its fiduciary responsibilities seriously.

“Because of privacy rules, we cannot speak to the specifics of any case. We are aware of this ongoing investigation and we are continuing to co-operate with authorities.”

Jason Gratl, the lawyer for the Vancouver plaintiff, only identified as R.O., alleges Saunders took funds meant for his client’s food, clothing and shelter.

“Many of them were made homeless and destitute,” Gratl says in an interview.

Related: Dad files Charter challenge after B.C. bans kids from taking transit unsupervised

Related: Caregivers banned from smoking, growing cannabis around children-in-care: MCFD

The lawsuits say Saunders ”engaged in the same and similar unlawful and inexcusable activities in respect of dozens of other children in his care, most of whom are Aboriginal children.”

Gratl alleges that as much as $40,000 each was taken from children between the ages of 15 and 19 and that the fraud had been going on for a minimum of four years.

“I don’t know what year it began in,” he says in the interview. “We just don’t know how deep this problem goes.”

The statements of claim allege that in early 2016, Saunders moved the children in order to make them eligible for financial benefits from the ministry and he opened joint bank accounts for each youth.

“Saunders stole the funds deposited by the ministry into joint bank accounts by moving them to his own individual account at Interior Savings and by paying his personal expenses by electronic transfer from the joint bank account,” the statements say.

They allege Saunders was aware of the youths’ vulnerability and aware that he exercises parental control over them.

“Saunders failed to ensure the plaintiff received adequate care and support, and failed to provide for the plaintiff’s for the basic needs,” the statements say.

The lawsuits say that Saunders exercised complete control over every aspects of the plaintiffs’ lives, including where they would live, access to family members, their cultural heritage, services and financial help.

The director of child welfare did not review Saunders’ files to check if he was carrying out his duties appropriately, the statements say.

“The director failed to implement adequate systems, restraints and controls to detect and prevent Saunders’ misappropriation of funds and benefits,” say the statements of claim.

The ministry didn’t have the systems to detect and prevent Saunders from taking the funds and once the misconduct was detected, the government failed to move quickly to restrain the man, the lawsuits say.

Interior Savings helped Saunders by having the children sign forms opening joint accounts but didn’t tell them that the accounts were with Saunders, the statements of claim allege.

“Because of his repeated transactions with Interior Savings’ employees, Interior Savings knew that Saunders was a government employee with a fixed salary and that the funds entering into his personal account were irregular and that his transactions patterns were irregular,” the statement says.

The lawsuits don’t specify a dollar figure, but ask for aggravated and punitive damages, the tracing of all funds taken and costs.

In order for the lawsuit in Vancouver to go ahead as a class-action proceeding it must first be certified by a judge.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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