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Disgraced former Kelowna social worker facing more legal action

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Image Credit: Global Okanagan (with permission)
January 21, 2021 - 11:58 AM

A former Kelowna social worker charged with defrauding multiple youths under his care is now the subject of another lawsuit that claims a former client became homeless because he was not told about the existence of a program aimed at helping young people leaving care.

In the lawsuit filed in B.C. Supreme Court Jan. 18, Zachary Alphonse claims that because disgraced former Kelowna social worker Robert Riley Saunders failed to inform him about an educational program for people leaving care, he became depressed and felt hopeless, and spent about a month being homeless.

In the notice of claim, Alphonse says Saunders and an unnamed colleague, along with the Ministry of Children and Family Development, are all responsible for failing to inform him he was eligible for the Young Adults Program.

"(Alphonse) had only completed to Grade 9 of his secondary schooling, and without financial support, he could not afford to work on his graduate equivalency degree," reads the court document. "For a period of approximately one year, (Alphonse) could see no future for himself, felt hopeless and became depressed and unable to advance his interests."

Alphonse proposes the court approve the case as a class-action suit. If successful, this would mean all children under the Ministry's care who were not informed of the Young Adults Program would be represented, and therefore eligible for compensation if the court rules in their favour.

Saunders is currently out on bail having been charged with 13 counts of fraud and theft in December last year. Ten of the counts are for fraud over $5,000.

However, a civil suit against Saunders suggests there was nearly 10 times the number of victims. Saunders is accused of theft and fraud by taking money earmarked for his often vulnerable clients.

In October 2020, the province reached a $15 million settlement in an earlier class-action suit against Saunders and the Ministry of Children and Family Development. The settlement will see 102 largely Indigenous former foster children see payouts of at least $25,000.

Early court documents say Saunders, who worked for the Ministry of Children and Family Development from 1996 to 2018 wasn't a qualified social worker and faked paperwork saying he had a degree.

According to the notice of claim, Saunders became Alphonse's social worker in 2010.

The court documents say while children in the care of the province "age out" of care at 19 years old, they do become eligible for support under the Adult Youth Program until age 27. The program gives them four years of financial support to complete college, university, or vocational skills programs.

However, Alphonse was never told about the program and hadn't heard about it until the ministry wrote to him last summer saying he may be eligible for the program. However, now aged 29, Alphonse was too old to qualify.

Alphonse says that had he known about the existence of the program his life would have been very different.

The notice claims say Alphonse spent about one year feeling hopeless and depressed until at age 20 he began working part-time.

He gradually started stabilizing his working life over the next six or seven years, but his lack of high school education kept him from advancing at work.

"His work life was extremely discouraging," reads the document.

At age 27, Alphonse completed a technical certificate in computer repair while working full time. He's now just a few credits away from completing Grade 12.

"Saunders' and the Ministry's breach of their duties caused (Alphonse) to incur expenses that he would not otherwise have incurred," reads the claim.

Alphonse is seeking damages for the cost of future education along with aggravated and punitive damages.

The Ministry and Saunders have not yet responded to the claim.

Alphonse's lawyer, Jason Gratl, was not immediately available for comment.

For more stories on Robert Riley Saunders go here.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 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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