Victim testifies at pre-sentencing hearing for former Kelowna social worker who stole from youth in his care – Kelowna News

UPDATE 3:45 pm

A former colleague of Robert Riley Saunders has tested about how she discovered the former social worker’s fraudulent activities.

In December 2017 she became suspicious after asking him about intent to rent forms for youth in his care.

Saunders told her “they live with their parents, they don’t need them.” The colleague said she felt pressured by him to not look into it and to leave it alone.

She recounted one incident when he pressured her to sign off on some ‘schedule As’ and wouldn’t leave her office until she did so. The former colleague then went into his office after he left that day and retrieved the documents and voided them.

Another red flag for the woman was evident of independent living agreements and payments for a youth she knew were incarcerated at the time. When she started delving into those payments, Saunders told her to “leave it alone.”

Instead, she went to her office manager to inquire about the schedule A’s and also access electronic files to ascertain if checks had been written out for the youth in question. They found evidence that checks had been issued for $579 twice a month, for some time.

When they searched the check sign-out drawer in the office they discovered notes on the sign-out sheets indicating the payment had been mailed to the youth.

The woman called Saunders back. He said the checks had been given to the teen’s mother, but the mother denied that. When the colleague called back, Riley claimed he had put the checks in an account for the youth and that he’d already had his ‘hand slapped’ for doing so and told her not to worry about it.

When she requested that he send her screenshots of the bank account so she could show her supervisor, he failed to do so and seemed nervous on the phone.

Later that day she called him back and told Saunders “you need to come forward”. She testified he said no and to “leave it alone, just leave it alone”.

Saunders worked for the Ministry of Children and Family Development in Kelowna from 2001 until he was fired in 2018.

The pre-sentencing hearing is expected to run all week.


ORIGINAL 1pm

A lengthy hearing got underway Monday to determine the facts before a former Kelowna social worker is sentenced in a high profile case involving the siphoning of money from dozens of vulnerable youth.

A “gardiner hearing” for Robert Riley Saunders is scheduled for five days this week in Kelowna Supreme Court. While Saunders has already pleaded guilty, the hearing will allow the court to determine disputed facts that will have an impact on sentencing.

In September 2021, Saunders pleaded guilty to three of 13 charges, including fraud over $5,000 against the province, breach of trust in connection with his duties as a child protection guardianship worker, and causing the province to act on a forged document

The first witness was a former youth in the care of the BC Ministry of Children and Families. When questioned by the Crown about how he was treated by Saunders, the young man said he felt like a step-child and that his concerns were swept off the table.

He also detailed what money he received through the ministry from his former social worker between 2016 and 2018, and what happened when he was assigned a new social worker.

The young man told the court he was only given small payments, of a maximum of $120 every week or two for food and clothing. He also said after he left foster care he was not told by Saunders that he could be eligible for an independent living agreement that would have provided more funding for things like rent and education.

While going through documents presented as part of the case, the youth was asked if he recognized the signatures in a book where those in care had to sign off for payments like the $120 vouchers. He tested that he recognized the first two as his signature, but he did not recognize the others.

He said it was definitely not his signature on another payment supposedly to his father, who he had lived with on and off in 2018, and that his dad did not receive the money.

Saunders’ criminal charges were laid more than two years after he was hit with a number of civil lawsuits from former youth in his care, most of whom were at-risk Indigenous youth.

The lawsuits alleged, “Saunders sought out and exploited aboriginal high-risk youth because he knew that his supervisors and managers… would not look closely at their affairs or adequately safeguard their interests.”

Last year, the provincial government settled a class-action lawsuit, agreeing to pay dozens of former youth in Saunders’ care tens of thousands of dollars.

The civilian suits charged Saunders would open joint bank accounts with the youth in his care, and then government withdraw money meant to be used for their care, for his own use.

The First Nations Leadership Council issued a news release last fall in response to the guilty plea deal.

“The power and privilege evident in this plea deal is beyond frustrating,” said Chief Don Tom, vice president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. “This man spent over ten years intentionally and strategically preying upon vulnerable youth for his personal gain, managing to siphon nearly $600,000 from 102 youth in government care – almost all of whom were Indigenous.

“He abused his position of authority as their social worker to open bank accounts in their names and to steal their money. He witnessed firsthand how many of these youth ended up homeless, sexually exploited, and abused in vulnerable situations as they tried to have their own basic needs met and he continued without a second thought.”

Saunders was employed by BC’s Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) between 1996 and 2018.

A former colleague took the witness stand Monday afternoon detailing some of the purchases Saunders made leading up to him leaving the ministry in 2018, including a house worth nearly $800,000, a new pickup, a boat and a luxury car for his teenage son.

He remains out of custody after he was granted bail two weeks after his initial arrest.

–with files from Nicholas Johansen

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