Class action settlement approved against former Kelowna social worker | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Class action settlement approved against former Kelowna social worker

Robert Riley Saunders sold his house for a hefty profit after investigation started into his alleged theft from clients.
Image Credit: Global Okanagan (with permission)
October 28, 2020 - 6:00 PM

The class action settlement for victims of former Kelowna social worker Robert Riley Saunders was approved last week, meaning those who suffered harm while under his care may soon see some financial compensation.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Alan Ross certified the suit Oct. 23, and Gratl & Company Barristers and Solicitors posted an update to the settlement agreement, said Jason Gratl, the lawyer hired by the B.C.'s Public Guardian and Trustee to represent Saunders's former clients.

While it was certified last week, Saunders's victims who have yet to identify themselves have until October 2022 to do so.

Saunders generally neglected children in the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development assigned to his guardianship. 

“Most of the children for whom Saunders was acting as guardian were Indigenous children, and their cultural and spiritual development was ignored and neglected,” reads the statement on Gratl's website.

The terms of the settlement provide for payment to Class Members without proof of harm for a minimum of $25,000. An additional $44,000 is available for Indigenous children, for a total payment of $69,000.

In addition to the basic payments, class members may apply for elevated damages for increased harms caused or contributed by Saunders using a simplified procedure.

Those who suffered homelessness are eligible for an extra $25,000; psychological harm $45,000, sexual exploitation $75,000; educational delay $20,000 to $50,000; and bodily harm an extra $15,000.

The maximum amount in total for elevated damages for an individual is $181,000.

The maximum combined total award for basic payments and Elevated Damages for an individual is $250,000.

Legal fees in the amount of 12.5 per cent plus GST and PST will be deducted from Basic Payments and Elevated Damages.

The province has admitted that Saunders harmed children in the director's care for whom he had responsibility in his capacity as a social worker and it is vicariously liable for the harm caused by Saunders.

"This harm includes neglect, misappropriation of funds and failure to plan for the children's welfare and, with respect to Indigenous children, failure to take steps to preserve their cultural identities," reads the court document.

Initially, more than 100 people were identified as potential beneficiaries of the class action.

Saunders not only abused his role, but he also wasn't qualified for it and that's something this class action suit helped reveal.

In March of 2019, Gratl got a tip that Saunders had forged his University of Manitoba diplomas and had never graduated a degree program.

One of the exhibits in the case is an email string from Gayle Gordon, an Associate Registrar of the University of Manitoba, which confirms that Saunders did not graduate from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology or a Bachelor of Social Work.

Whether safeguards against that and other things that allowed this situation to happen have been put in place remains to be seen.

"I expect that the magnitude of the settlement will cause the ministry to implement some system of change, but it was difficult in the context of this claim to make systemic and institutional change an aspect of the settlement agreement," Gratl said during an earlier interview.

"It’s in part because the depth of Robert Riley Saunders' self-serving deception puts the focus on his misconduct rather than on systemic failings of the ministry."

Those who will be covered by the settlement are people who were in Saunders' care starting April 1, 2001 for at least 90 consecutive days and were under the age of 19. Saunders has yet to face criminal charges.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Kathy Michaels or call 250-718-0428 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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