Robert Riley Saunders
Of 13 young people who aged out of government care under the care of Robert Riley Saunders before he was fired, just three were given any kind of “aging-out funds” to help them with expenses they faced in transitioning to adulthood. But Saunders still collected those funds for himself.
Saunders took the stand for the second day at his Gardiner hearing Thursday, where the Crown is seeking to show that Saunders’ admitted fraud against the Ministry of Children and Family Development had concrete, provable negative impacts on the youth in his care.
A Gardiner hearing functions like a trial where a judge will determine disputed aggravating and mitigating facts that will impact the sentence length of the person who’s already pleaded guilty. While Saunders has admitted to committing the fraud, he could face a harsher sentence if the Crown can prove the aggravating factor that the fraud negatively impacted the youth in his care.
The Crown has identified 24 young people under Saunders’ care they claim were victimized by his fraud.
During his testimony Wednesday, Saunders admitted to filing fraudulent Independent Living Agreements and other documents to secure funding for youth in his care, before stealing the funds for himself. But he said in all the cases, the youth would not have been entitled to the money for a variety or reasons, including that they were already receiving funding for a “semi-independent” living arrangement.
During cross examination by Crown prosecutor Heather Magnin Thursday, Saunders also admitted to securing MCFD funds for young people who turned 19 and aged out of government care, but he kept the funds for himself.
“You were very opportunistic in terms of finding out how you could get the most funds to yourself with respect to the 24 youth in this binder?” Magnin posed so Saunders.
“I wouldn’t disagree,” Saunders said.
“You identified, with respect to each of these 24 youth, multiple ways in which you could get funds to yourself as opposed to funds to the youth, would you agree with that,” Magnin asked
“I’d agree, yes,” Saunders said.
But Saunders argued that he had the discretion to decide if the young people would benefit from “start-up” or “aging-out” funding, and he said the majority wouldn’t have.
“Are you suggesting these youth couldn’t have benefited from start-up funds at the time when they turned 19?” Magnin asked.
“I’m not going to disagree that they could have benefitted from financial support but I will reiterate again that it is the responsibility of the social worker representing the Ministry to be fiduciarily responsible and determine whether or not somebody is entitled and capable of receiving these types of funds,” Saunders said.
“I will use (Victim G) as an example; if I was to issue her direct moneys, that money would go directly to feed her drug and alcohol habit … Any moneys going to these kids at the time they were aging out, they were unstable, dysfunctional, problematic, substance-abuse addicted , and money is not going to be handed over to them at that time.”
Saunders denied that he never informed the youth in his care about possible “independent living” funding or “aging out” funds they could be entitled if they could follow some rules.
“I worked very closely, regularly, with all of these youth … the majority of all these youth all had support workers in place to provide that information and support, as well and to advocate on their behalf,” Saunders said. “I adamantly can say that I did my job in that regard.
“Their circumstances never changed, none of these youth presented as an individual who made any progress or demonstrated the willingness to participate in any sort of educational program that would then allow them to be considered to be on an Independent Living Agreement.”
Magnin showed him one Independent Living Agreement Saunders filed in 2013, that secured a total of $1,158 in monthly payments from the MCFD for “Victim E.” Saunders claimed the document was fraudulent and Victim E “was not entitled to that money,” due to his enrollment in a different semi-independent living program at the time.
But Magnin suggested the document was legitimate, as it was signed by Saunders’ supervisor, and Victim E should have received that money.
“Why would your supervisor sign the Independent Living Agreement if it’s fraudulent?” asked Magnin.
“You’d have to ask them. I would take my paperwork to them and they would sign it,” Saunders said. “Whether they reviewed it or looked over the validity of it, I can’t speak to that.”
Saunders admitted he used a number of youth in his care who were living in unapproved living situations in his fraudulent activity, opening up joint bank accounts with them, because he knew his thefts would be less likely to be noticed.
At some point during the six years he carried out his scheme, Saunders was given “alternate spending authority” by the MCFD. While he initially denied it in court Thursday, Magnin showed him evidence that he routinely both requested and approved his own imprest checks at the MCFD, which he then deposited in joint bank accounts with the youth in his care and took for himself.
“I was opportunistic to take advantage of system that I saw as flawed and wasn’t being accountable,” Saunders said. “I took advantage of some other holes and other opportunities, I would agree with that.”
Saunders thefts from the MCFD increased over time, and he said he became “greedy, arrogant and irresponsible.” He agreed that in 2012, he stole about $18,000 from the MCFD, while in 2017, he stole more than $120,000.
“I suggest to you another aspect that you were very familiar with was the maximum amounts you could issue without any red flags going off, would that be fair?” Magnin asked.
“So I thought,” Saunders said.
Magnin said she hopes to finish her cross examination of Saunders Friday. While the Gardiner hearing was scheduled to finish this week, Crown and defense now expect to take an extra day to finish their submissions some time next week.