Outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 22, syilx and sqilx’w community members gathered at the courthouse’s steps, holding signs that denounced Saunders and called for the protection of Indigenous youth. Photo by Aaron HemensAaron Hemens, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jul 28, 2022 at 15:41

By Aaron Hemens, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A man who forged social worker credentials and defrauded youth under his “care” — many of whom were Indigenous — has been sentenced to five years in prison.

Robert Riley Saunders was condemned by a judge for living a lavish lifestyle at the expense of the children and youth who suffered because of his actions. Court heard Saunders misappropriated more than $460,000.

“While he was enjoying the spoils of his scheme, the youth in his care were struggling,” said Justice Steven Wilson.

Saunders’s face was sombre and he showed little to no emotion as the judge handed down the sentence at the “B.C.” Supreme Court in syilx homelands in “Kelowna” on Monday. When the trial finished, Saunders quietly cooperated with authorities who led him away. A person who identified themselves as his sister wept in the public gallery, while a row of his former colleagues quietly expressed their relief, sharing smiles amongst themselves.

During the trial, Crown counsel Heather Magnin read aloud four victim impact statements from youth who Saunders harmed. They described being bullied, robbed of their youth, and the lifelong impacts of his abuse. One even said they were unhoused while under his “care.”

The scheme

Before the sentence was delivered Monday, Wilson went over Saunders’s career with the ministry, as well as the details of his fraud.

Court heard that Saunders, 52, was first hired by the “B.C.” Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) in 1996 in “Fort St. John,” using a forged bachelor of social work degree from the University of Manitoba, and that his then-girlfriend assisted in forging the document.

Five years later, Saunders transferred to “Kelowna” in syilx homelands. While working as a social worker with MCFD’s Indigenous Integrated Family Service and Guardianship, Saunders opened 24 joint bank accounts with youth, whose wellbeing he was supposed to look out for. 

For six and a half years, starting in June 2011, he issued more than 850 ministry cheques to the youth, which he deposited in each youth’s account. The cheques totalled more than $460,000. Since the funds were in a joint account, Saunders was then able to transfer the money to his own personal bank account. Most of the cheques, which ranged from support payments to startup funds for youth aging out of care, were in amounts of $579. 

During his scheme, court heard Saunders “issued” two cheques from the ministry per month to each of the youth. He fraudulently created the required ministry paperwork to make it appear that the youth were receiving money in the joint accounts, to justify issuing the cheques.

A Gardiner Hearing was held for Saunders between March 21 and March 31. These hearings are held to establish and determine any aggravating or mitigating facts that could affect sentencing.

During the first two days of the Gardiner Hearing, a former colleague — who cannot be named because they are still working with the ministry — testified and shared how Saunders carried out his fraud. They spoke of how they were able to unravel his scheme, which they described as “unsophisticated.” 

In December 2017, the colleague said, they were only one day into a new role and were able to recognize irregularities in Saunders’s work. 

Using the ministry’s computer system, Saunders would process a cheque and then approve said cheque. That cheque would then be printed, but could only be approved if at least two other social workers also signed off on it. 

The former colleague recalled Saunders coming into their office one day and pressuring them to sign off on ministry-issued cheques for a youth under his care, and said that Saunders refused to leave until they were signed. The colleague eventually signed off on the cheques, but later retrieved them from Saunders’ office after he left for vacation and voided them.

The colleague also discovered that Saunders had been “issuing” cheques to a youth who was incarcerated, and confronted him about it. Saunders’ explanation was that he had been giving them to the youth’s mom, but that was untrue. Saunders then said that he had been depositing the cheques into a bank account for the youth to access once they were released.

When the colleague asked Saunders to provide screenshots of the bank account with the deposited funds, he failed to do so. When the colleague asked him to come forward and explain himself to their manager, Saunders “continued to say, ‘No, there’s nothing, just leave it alone,’” the colleague recalled. His colleague sounded the alarm, and by January 2018, Saunders was terminated from his position.

In September 2021, Saunders pleaded guilty for just three of 13 criminal charges. This included one count of fraud over $5,000, as well as “breach of trust in connection with his duties as a child protection guardianship worker” and “causing the Province of B.C. to act on a forged document.”

Serious actions, serious repercussions

The prison sentence includes five years for fraud, two years for breach of trust (to be served concurrently with the fraud charge) and one month served consecutively for forgery. He is also prohibited from communicating with any former MCFD colleagues and youth who were under his care. 

The judge didn’t mince words when he described the seriousness of Saunders’ actions.

“Mr. Saunders’s treatment of the Indigenous youth in his care only further negatively impacts the relationship between Canada and its Indigenous communities, strained as a result of colonialism and the residential school system,” said Wilson.

While Saunders expressed remorse for his actions in front of the court on July 12, Wilson said during the sentencing that he did “not find that (Saunders) is remorseful,” and highlighted that he put his own interests ahead of all others and was motivated by greed.

“(Saunders) used the funds to create an identity of being rich, wishing to associate with others who enjoyed a similar lifestyle. That lifestyle included a very nice home, vehicles, a boat and numerous trips and vacations,” said Wilson.

According to Wilson, Saunders’s two children have since distanced themselves from their father. He also struggled to find and maintain employment following the media attention around his defrauding of youth, and relocated to Calgary to live with his sister.

“Mr. Saunders expressed that he does not know why his story was kept in the media longer than those who had committed serious crimes, like murder, rapes and shootings,” said Wilson.

During the Gardiner Hearing, the former colleague detailed how Saunders spent the stolen money. Before his termination from MCFD, he purchased a boat, a pickup truck, a BMW for his son and a home that was listed at $800,000. He often attended NHL games and regularly took trips to Las Vegas, and even travelled by helicopter to a football game. 

Bullied by a social worker

On June 23, Magnin read aloud four victim statements written by youth who were once part of Saunders’s caseload. They referred to him as Riley.

“I was a 15 year-old youth who was in the middle of chaos. I didn’t feel cared for,” said one. “My feelings were never validated or acknowledged. Riley often reminded me my life was chaotic by telling me stories of how great his life was with his kids.”

“When I look back on my life, it is surreal to me as I remember everything I’ve experienced. It wasn’t fair and I didn’t deserve any of this,” they said. “Riley robbed me of my youth and early adulthood. Even though he is no longer in my life, his actions will impact me for the rest of my life.”

Another youth said that they “were bullied by their own social worker.”

“I don’t want to be hurt again and I don’t want anyone else to steal from me. Riley changed my life, and I often wonder what my life could have been had he not been my social worker,” the statement said. “I believe I could’ve been happy, healthy and an active person in the community … Riley ruined my life, which I don’t think I’ll ever recover from.”

In another victim impact statement, a youth shared how they were houseless for two to three years while Saunders’ was assigned to them. 

“As a result of time under Riley’s care, my trust in the systems that are meant to support me has been destroyed. When I was in Riley’s care, he made me feel like I was a bad kid, that he didn’t want to deal with me,” they said. 

“I didn’t feel safe around him, and I continue to feel threatened by him every day.”

Two of those youth spoke to the court during a Gardiner Hearing. The youth described feeling unsupported and left in the dark about the assisted living funds issued by the ministry and intended for them – information Saunders willfully withheld.

“I always had a bad influence of what the ministry was. When I first got into it, I had expected that I would probably not get all the help that I needed from what my dad had explained,” said one youth.

“When I had met Riley Saunders, it had kind of just reconfirmed everything that my dad had told me.”

‘Little regard’ for consequences

During the Gardiner Hearing, Saunders had argued that many of the youth were not entitled to the funds that were intended for them, and therefore “could not have been deprived.” According to the colleague who testified, Saunders often used harsh words that indicated he thought the youth were inactive, unmotivated and a drain on government money.

Wilson ruled on May 20, 2022, that Crown counsel had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Saunders’s fraud did in fact cause a risk of deprivation for the youth under his care.

“Mr. Saunders was uniquely positioned as a guardianship worker to be the gatekeeper of the resources that were intended to benefit these vulnerable youths,” Wilson said.

“He took advantage of that position for his own benefit, with little regard to the consequences for those who the resources were intended to benefit.”

Wilson said “it is of note” that many of the youth affected by Saunders’s fraud were Indigenous. 

“Indigenous youth in care were apprehended by the state, a state that – for many years – removed Indigenous youth from their families in order to deprive them of their culture, language and community through the residential school system,” he said. 

“Systemic factors arising from the residential school system and the loss of community continue to result in harm to Indigenous communities and families.”

MCFD settled a class action lawsuit in 2020, consisting of 102 youth who’d been under Saunders’s purview. Eighty-five of them were Indigenous youth. As a result of the settlement Indigenous youth who were in Saunders’s care for at least 90 days are entitled to a basic payment of $69,000, plus additional money for any other harms they may have incurred — up to a maximum of $250,000.

syilx and sqilx’w community members gathered outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 22 and 23 during Saunders’s sentencing hearing to condemn Saunders and to honour the youth he impacted.

Alex Terbasket, manager of the Lower Similkameen Band and a former addictions care worker at the Ashnola At The Crossing treatment centre, said he hoped the gathering would send a message.

“We would be here in the rain or snow if we had to, because that’s how important our children are to us and our community,” said Terbasket. “Our children are our future. I’m not here for myself. I’m here for my community and my community’s future.”

This item reprinted with permission from The Discourse, Vancouver, British Columbia