B.C. government responds to social worker accused of stealing money from teens

The B.C. government says a Kelowna social worker accused of stealing money from teens in government care no longer works for public service.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development responded Friday to allegations against Robert Riley Sanders, who is accused of defrauding dozens of youth, mainly aboriginal, out of government support money.

The ministry says it has taken serval steps in light of the allegations to protect youth, including implementing new financial controls aimed at ensuring money is not misappropriated.

An independent review of the ministry’s financial controls, completed earlier this year, recommended a systems change to prevent staff from being able to both initiate and print cheques without the involvement of a second staff member.

The ministry says it will review its payment process, and look at measures to reduce the reliance on cheque-based payments. It also stated that Saunders was no longer working for government.

“The individual in question is no longer employed with the BC Public Service,” the ministry said.

According to a class-action suit filed in B.C. Supreme Court Tuesday, the Public Guardian and Trustee claim Saunders manipulated the teenagers into an “independent living” program, but then kept the money, leaving them vulnerable to becoming homeless.

The ministry, the director of child welfare, and the Kamloops-based financial institution where the money was deposited are named in the lawsuit.

The director of child welfare was accused of not adequately supervising Saunders and failing to have protections in place to restrain, control, detect and prevent his misappropriation of funds and benefits.

The lawsuit claims the ministry team did not hold the weekly and monthly consultations with Saunders as required by policy, failing to ascertain whether the children assigned to him received adequate care.

Vancouver lawyer Jason Gratl, acting for the public guardian, said they had identified roughly 24 youths who were victimized by Saunders, but there may be as many as 90, most First Nations. He added that sums of between $30,000 and $40,000 were involved in each case.

The lawsuit said the plaintiff, identified only as R.O., was “vulnerable to abuse given his or her history of parental neglect, medical neglect, transiency and exposure to traumatic circumstances.”

In early 2016, Saunders moved R.O. from a “stable home environment into an unstable residential or independent living arrangement” in order to make R.O. eligible for government financial benefits, according to the suit.

He then allegedly opened a joint bank account with R.O. at Interior Savings Financial Services Ltd. and stole the money deposited by the ministry by moving it into his own Interior account or by paying his own personal expenses by electronic transfer from the joint account.

The suit claims says Interior Savings was negligent and in breach of contract for failing to implement adequate safeguards to ensure Saunders could not unlawfully convert the plaintiff’s funds.

The ministry earlier in the week declined to comment because the matter is before the courts. However, on Friday the ministry said, in a statement, that a publication ban had been lifted involving alleged activities by a Kelowna social worker.

None of the allegations has been proven in court.

ticrawford@postmedia.com

With files from Ian Mulgrew

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