Robert Riley Saunders. (File)

Province agrees to multimillion-dollar payout for alleged victims of Kelowna social worker

Robert Riley Saunders is accused of misappropriating funds of children — often Indigenous — in his care

The province has reached a proposed settlement with more than 100 alleged victims of a former Kelowna social worker that could cost up to $15 million.

B.C. Supreme Court documents filed Tuesday, July 15, identified 107 potential victims who were overseen by Robert Riley Saunders while he was in a guardianship role with the Ministry of Children and Family Development. Ninety of those alleged victims are believed to be Indigenous. Two are dead and four have settled in separation actions.

Saunders was hired by the ministry in 1996 and transferred to Kelowna in 2001. He was fired in 2018.

Dozens of allegations against Saunders have come to light in the past few years through various civil claims. He is accused of misappropriating funds of children in his care through the use of joint bank accounts and plunging several of his clients into lives of addiction, homelessness and abuse.

READ MORE: Former Kelowna social worker sued again for allegedly stealing from foster children

READ MORE: More allegations against second social worker accused of abusing the trust of Okanagan youth

The settlement will see each of the 102 class members receive $25,000, with an additional $44,000 provided to Indigenous clients. On top of that, clients could apply for additional funds if they suffered sexual exploitation ($75,000), psychological harm ($45,000), homelessness ($25,000), educational delay ($50,000 over 3 years; $20,000 1-3 years) and bodily harm ($15,000). The maximum settlement any one of Saunders’ former clients could receive is $250,000.

Jason Gratl, the lawyer for the plaintiff, said the total compensation could come out between $12 million and $15 million. Gratl also mentioned the allegations date back to 2001 and there may be more children involved. But poor or false records were kept.

“The records created by Riley Sanders tended to be false and self-serving because Riley Saunders was known to be a con-artist and a self-serving fraudster,” Gratl said in an interview Wednesday.

He said employment records show that Saunders was insensitive to Aboriginal culture and history, yet he was assigned to work with high-risk Indigenous children by the ministry.

The ministry wasn’t immediately available for comment and Saunders has never commented on the allegations or filed a statement of defence in court.

In its reply to the lawsuit filed in court, the ministry admitted to “vicarious liability” for the acts and omissions of Saunders.

The reply said the ministry detected financial irregularities involving Saunders in December 2017 and he was suspended a month later.

“Steps were taken under the direction of the local (ministry) office to ensure the immediate safety and well-being of the children, youth and young adults on the caseload of Mr. Saunders,” stated the response to the civil claim.

The prosecution service said it has received a report on Saunders from the RCMP and possible charges are being assessed.

Two lawsuits filed against the province and Saunders in 2018, alleged Saunders moved the children from their homes in order to make them eligible for financial benefits from the ministry, then opened joint bank accounts for each youth.

“Saunders stole the funds deposited by the ministry into joint bank accounts by moving them to his own individual account at Interior Savings and by paying his personal expenses by electronic transfer from the joint bank account,” the statements said.

They also alleged Saunders was aware of the youths’ vulnerability and aware that he exercised parental control over them

After the allegations against Saunders became public, he disappeared from Kelowna. He has never been served with any of the dozens of civil suits he is facing.

Gratl said Saunders was recently believed to be working at a golf resort in Alberta.

A certification hearing for the class action is scheduled for July 28. If approved, it would allow an individual’s case to stand in for all the class members.

A decision from the court on approval of the settlement is expected after the certification hearing.

The province has launched its own suit against Saunders to recuperate some of its lost funds.

– With files from the Canadian Press

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email: michael.rodriguez@kelownacapnews.com


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