Plea deal for fraudulent social worker means 'no accountability' for children who suffered, First Nations say

·2 min read
Robert Riley 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. (Facebook - image credit)
Robert Riley 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. (Facebook - image credit)

The Syilx Okanagan Nation Alliance is calling for an overhaul of B.C.'s childcare system after a Kelowna, B.C., man was given a plea deal for charges relating to siphoning money from dozens of vulnerable youth, many of whom are Indigenous.

Last week, Robert Riley 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.

Saunders had eluded authorities for months after his actions, which stretched from 2001 to 2018, first came to light. He was caught in Alberta in 2020.

Following his release on bail after his plea deal last Monday, the Syilx Okanagan Nation Alliance and the Penticton Indian Band are calling for reform of the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), which employed Saunders.

"Where's the justice in that [plea deal], at the same time that the children that were under [his] care suffered and they continue to suffer?" said Greg Gabriel, chief of the Penticton Indian Band.

"There seems to be no accountability for that."

Gabriel is a child and family governance representative with regional First Nations, which means he interacts directly with the ministry. He says Indigenous children continue to fall through gaps in care.

"We know our children and we work hard to work with the ministry to make sure the proper care is in place. But once the ministry ... gets involved, the children become out of our hands, such as in [Saunders'] case," he said.

He said the MCFD should work hand-in-hand with First Nations in the future on child support, and that he wants people to be held accountable in case issues aren't addressed.

The B.C. government settled a multi-million dollar class action suit in the Saunders case last year. It was filed by numerous Indigenous children. Anyone who was in his care will receive between $25,000 and $250,000.

Saunders, now 50, had used a fake bachelor of social work degree supposedly from the University of Manitoba as part of his original employment applications in 1996.

Dozens of individual lawsuits claimed he used joint bank accounts to take money provided by the MCFD to children in his care.

A sentencing hearing in his case is scheduled for March 21 next year.

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