Province reaches $15M proposed settlement in case of Kelowna social worker who bilked children in care | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Province reaches $15M proposed settlement in case of Kelowna social worker who bilked children in care

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)
July 15, 2020 - 1:25 PM

More than 100 clients of disgraced Kelowna social worker Robert Riley Saunders could soon be compensated by B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Development.

According to court documents filed in Supreme Court Tuesday, July 14, the ministry reached a settlement agreement for children in Saunders' care and it is scheduled to go before a judge on July 28.

The deal could cost the province as much as $15 million and will provide $25,000 for each of the 102 former clients regardless of their current circumstances. Indigenous clients will receive an extra $44,000 each. Victims who suffered homelessness, sexual exploitation, and physical or sexual abuse can apply for an additional $181,000 in 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.

While vicarious liability leaves the province footing the bill, it doesn't necessarily indicate changes to the system that let Saunders siphon money from the children in his care — a situation at the heart of most of the allegations against him.

That, however, may come said Jason Gratl, the lawyer hired by the B.C.'s Public Guardian and Trustee to represent Saunders's former clients.

"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.

"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."

While there have already been a number of civil suits outlining the issues those in Saunders' care faced, the settlement also brings to light moments when the ministry was made aware of Saunders's shortcomings in the role he held.

One exhibit is a copy of a Dec. 22, 2004 letter of reprimand issued by the province to Saunders.

It concludes that Saunders engaged in conduct that was perceived to involve a conflict of interest.

The letter states,"[i]n your specific situation, a perceived conflict of interest results from:(1). Personally withholding a client's money and (2). Deliberately not involving a third party to oversee a client's financial transactions."

Another exhibit is Saunders' annual employment review dated April 26, 2005.

"Under employee's weak points or areas where improvement is needed" it is stated that Saunders" [n]eeds to be conscious of how he comes across in meeting (ie.can be seen to be disinterested or not showing appropriate sensitivity to the Aboriginal culture/history)."

Further, Saunders wasn't actually qualified for the role he held, having forged his degree.

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.

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.

This settlement, according to the suit, may not work for all people who dealt with Saunders and other civil suits are still ongoing.

Criminal charges have yet to be filed.

Find past stories on Robert Riley Saunders here.

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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