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More lawsuits being filed against former Kelowna social worker

Robert Riley Saunders
Image Credit: Global Okanagan (with permission)

KELOWNA - Seven more lawsuits will likely be filed next week against the social worker accused of stealing from at risk aboriginal youths in foster care in Kelowna.

Last fall, Vancouver lawyer Jason Gratl filed a number of lawsuits against Robert Riley Saunders, the Ministry of Children and Family Development and Interior Savings Credit Union, alleging that Saunders set up joint bank accounts with children in care, kicked them out of secure housing and kept their support payments for himself.

According to a CTV report, and confirmed by Gratl, four more lawsuits were filed yesterday, March 13, bringing the total he has filed to 10. At least one other lawsuit was filed by another lawyer.

The seven lawsuits Gratl plans to file next week will add two more financial institutions to the list, although he did not name them.

As for how many more children may have been exploited, Gratl can’t say for sure.

“The Ministry is hanging onto a great number of records,” he said. “Also, it’s very difficult to track down these former foster children. Some are deceased. Some have died from drug overdoses as a consequence of living on the streets. Others, we have difficulty locating because they are on the streets.”

He knows of two former clients of Saunders who have died after being in his care, but can’t directly attribute their deaths to Saunders’ alleged actions.

Gratl estimates there are at least 20 high risk former clients of Saunders who are now homeless or spent some time homeless and that Saunders may have handled 100 to 150 files in the small Kelowna office dealing with high risk aboriginal children where he worked.

And these weren’t necessarily troubled youth when they were taken into care.

Gratl cited the case of a single father who raised his son from the age of two until the father was hospitalized after being hit by a car when the boy was 12. The son was taken into care while the father was in hospital.

After the father came out of hospital he lived on a disability pension that was not enough to include care for his son so the boy was put into foster care. He kept running away to be with his father.

Gratl alleges that Saunders kicked the son out of foster care and pocketed the son’s living allowance. The boy ended up homeless because it was not feasible to stay with his father in a tiny apartment. The son is now 20 years old.

Nor does it appear to Gratl that Saunders was the only worker involved in the alleged schemes in the small Kelowna office.

“These people worked close together,” he said. “It seems implausible to me that his coworkers were not aware.”

His line supervisor was named in at least one of the lawsuits.

Gratl doesn’t know how many people worked there but has only come across 10 names, he told

Cheques for clients were requisitioned by Saunders and were supposed to be signed by two people but, in some cases, Saunders was one of those signators.

The office supervisor was also assigned to Penticton for about a year so there was no proper supervision of the staff, Gratl said.

“Our next step is to obtain complete copies of the Ministry files and assess where, within the chain of ministry command, to assign the blame,” Gratl said. He’s looking into the reasons clients were put into care as well as what happened to them under Saunders’ watch.

The problem is, he noted, many of those files were written by Saunders himself and are “replete with errors.”

Gratl wants the Ministry to own up to its share of responsibility in the allegations.

“The Ministry is more than happy to admit that Riley Saunders was a bad apple,” he said. “But they won’t say the bad apple fell from a bad tree. The Ministry has to come to understand that the bad tree gave birth to the bad apple and they were the bad tree.

“Until the Ministry comes to a level of self-awareness that its own failure to implement the appropriate policies led to the homelessness and abuse of these aboriginal children, we won’t have sufficient common ground to resolve these disputes.”

It could take many months before any cases actually go to trial.

The lawsuits are civil actions. No criminal charges have been filed and none of the allegations have been proven in court.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 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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