Former Kelowna social worker deprived youth in his care after stealing their money: Judge | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Former Kelowna social worker deprived youth in his care after stealing their money: Judge

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)

Robert Riley Saunders did not just steal money from his employer, he also deprived several young people who relied on him, a B.C. Supreme Court Justice found today.

Saunders, a disgraced former social worker in Kelowna, had already pleaded guilty last year to several charges of fraud, breach of trust and forgery, but Justice Steven Wilson was asked to determine exactly what he was guilty of. In a lengthy sentencing hearing, Saunders argued he is only guilty of committing fraud against his employer, but Wilson found evidence he also deprived the youth under his care. 

The decision could mean a much heavier sentence when his sentencing hearing resumes next month.

Thirteen of the 24 youth victims in his case had aged out of ministry care prior to January 2018 when Saunders was first suspended after his supervisor noticed something was amiss. Nine youth were issued start-up funds, meant to provide support for them when they aged out of ministry care, but never received them. The other four only received some of their funds, Justice Wilson said.

Saunders pocketed nearly $500,000 by depositing cheques into joint bank accounts in both his and the youths' names. Then they were transferred to a bank account in his own name. There was no legitimate reason to open joint accounts and it breached ministry policy. He also took steps to conceal his ongoing fraud by creating false documents and forged signatures, Wilson said.

Saunders argued the youth were not issued the funds because they could not spend them responsibly. He was concerned they might use the funds to purchase drugs, however, Justice Wilson said it is common for a social worker or transition worker to take a youth shopping for routine supplies and to use start up funds. Vouchers could have been issued for local businesses, he said.

For the youth that only received part of their aging out funds, “they could have very likely benefited from a larger amount… if the youth had the maturity to be issued $500 for aging out furnishing, they presumably had the need for the extra $500 as well,” he said.

READ MORE: Robert Riley Saunders pocketed nearly $500,000 from fraud

In one instance, a youth under Saunders care was eligible for an independent living allowance but Saunders actively discouraged him from seeking an independent living arrangement and failed to provide him with information in order to continue funding his scheme, Wilson said.

“While (the youth) struggled to manage rules set by others, the evidence would suggest he was quite capable of living independently and that he did so,” Wilson said. Through March 2016 to January 2018, two cheques per month were issued by Saunders to the youth, listed as monthly support under an Independent Living Agreement while the youth bounced around from living at friends and his father’s home.

“(The youth) was deprived of the opportunity to be placed on an ILA because it suited Mr. Saunders’ fraudulent purposes,” Wilson said. “(The youth) was also not provided with the opportunity to create a safer and more stable environment for himself that could have only assisted with his future.”

Saunders argued none of the youth in his care were eligible for an independent living agreement, however Justice Wilson said this youth was successfully placed under an independent living agreement shortly after Saunders was suspended.

The evidence Saunders provided during his testimony was self-serving, as he continued to reiterate his beliefs but was inconsistent with details on events that happened years ago unless it suited him, Justice Wilson said.

“The underlying theme of Mr. Saunders' evidence was that the youth in his care were never entitled to the benefits that he misappropriated and therefore the youth suffered no loss,” Wilson said.

“He insisted on the opportunity to restate his position on numerous occasions throughout his evidence, regardless of whether it was responsive to the question proposed to him as if repetition would bolster reliability.”

Saunders argued individual youth were not entitled to benefits and denied he had any obligation to secure independent living housing for youth or provide them with information about independent living agreements if they rejected their housing placements, like in a foster home, Wilson said, which is contrary to ministry policy and the testimony of two social workers.

However, the Crown could not prove Saunders abandoned another youth in his care in Ontario to continue his fraudulent scheme. The youth went to visit their father over Christmas break and did not return to Kelowna, saying he could not afford the flight home after it was cancelled.

“Documentary evidence is more consistent with Saunders evidence than the (youth’s) recollection,” Wilson said, adding ministry emails show the flight was not cancelled until weeks after the flight was set to occur.

“It would therefore seem unlikely (the youth) would have gone to the airport to find out the flight has been cancelled."

Wilson said the Crown has proven beyond a reasonable double that the youth in his care were at risk of deprivation because of his fraud and proved he actually deprived youth in his care by taking age out and living allowance funds. His fraud also caused an increased risk of deprivation to youth and did not properly prepare one youth to properly age out of care.

The Crown failed to prove Saunders did not prepare other youth to age out of care however, he said.

In the hearing, Saunders had already admitted he forged a degree from the University of Manitoba to get his job.

Saunders sentence is scheduled to take place on June 22 and 23.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development settled a class-action lawsuit last year alleging Saunders "defrauded many children in the care of the Ministry of their food, clothing and shelter allowances.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Carli Berry or call 250-864-7494 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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