A B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development social worker has allegedly defrauded as many as 90 mainly Aboriginal youths out of government support money, leaving them homeless and vulnerable to predators.
In a class-action lawsuit filed in B.C. Supreme Court on Tuesday, the Public Guardian and Trustee claimed social worker Robert Riley Saunders manipulated the teenagers into an “independent living” program only to pocket their benefits and abandon them.
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.
In particular, the lawsuit said 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.
“The director was aware of previous instances of Saunders’ misconduct but failed to implement adequate supervision and controls that would have detected Saunders’ misconduct in a timely fashion,” the statement of claim said.
“Once Saunders’ misconduct was detected, the director failed to move expeditiously to review and restrain Saunders and failed to advise the plaintiff and ameliorate his or her position in a timely fashion, which exacerbated and prolonged the harms caused by Saunders.”
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 money is one aspect of things, but the other is the children were deprived of suitable accommodation, food and clothing for that period,” Gratl said.
“No one expects any government institution to be completely immune from bad apples or rogue employees, but once a fraud, a misconduct is detected, the ministry has to take immediate steps to address the situation. Here, the ministry failed to do so. It’s my understanding (Saunders) is no longer employed by the ministry.”
He would not comment on why the ministry had not produced a list of potential victims.
“We’d like to move swiftly to address this problem in a way that doesn’t make difficult and traumatic circumstances for these children even more difficult and more traumatic,” Gratl insisted. “We do expect the ministry to cooperate in seeking a resolution.”
The lawsuit said that the anonymized representative 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, the public guardian asserted in the court filing.
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.
“As a result of Saunders’ actions, (R.O.’s) living situation was unstable and transient; he or she was from time to time homeless as a result of Saunders’ actions,” stated the lawsuit.
“The plaintiff’s physical and psychological health suffered as a result of Saunders’ actions. The plaintiff’s trust and confidence in parental and authority figures has been severely compromised.”
The claim blamed the Kamloops-based financial institution for allowing Saunders to open numerous joint accounts with children known by the company to be the subject of a continuing custody order.
“Interior Savings assisted Saunders by having the children sign forms opening the joint accounts, but failed to advise the children that the accounts were joint accounts with Saunders. Employees of Interior Savings knew Saunders personally because they had repeated transactions with him.”
The lawsuit maintained the company “knew or ought to have known that the children did not personally attend Interior Savings to access any of their funds and that the children did not have electronic access to the funds or have debit or ATM cards. Interior Savings set up these joint accounts knowing that Saunders was the only one of the two ‘joint’ account holders that would be able to access the funds.”
R.O. was apparently misled about the legerdemain.
“Saunders was verbally and emotionally abusive to (R.O.),” the statement of claim said. “Saunders derided the plaintiff and her family. Saunders’ verbal and emotional abuse of the plaintiff was intended to and succeeded in undermining the plaintiff’s self-confidence and self-esteem, and undermined her belief that she might be entitled to any form of financial support from the state to bring her to a subsistence level of material well-being, such as food, clothing or shelter.
“In exercising parental control as a delegate of the director (of child welfare), Saunders exercised ultimate control over the plaintiff’s life. Saunders had complete control over every aspect of the plaintiff’s life, including where the plaintiff would live, the plaintiff’s access to family members, the plaintiff’s access to services and financial assistance, and the plaintiff’s connection to his or her cultural heritage. … Saunders represented the primary source of parental stability and security in the plaintiff’s life.”
In seeking unspecified damages, the suit claimed Saunders was liable for “negligence, defalcation, misfeasance of public office, abuse of process, conversion, breach of fiduciary duty and fraud.”
It accused the ministry of being vicariously liable for breaching its fiduciary duties to R.O. by ignoring “warning signs that Saunders was harming youth in his care. … Saunders’ actions and the province’s failure to inform and respond to the situation in a timely way are reprehensible and outrageous and warrant an award of punitive damages.”
Interior Savings was allegedly negligent and in breach of contract, the claim said, for failing to implement adequate safeguards to ensure Saunders could not unlawfully convert the plaintiff’s funds.
The ministry provided an email statement in response to questions: “The matter is before the courts and we are advised not to comment.”
“Interior Savings takes seriously all our fiduciary responsibilities,” said Corinne Johnson, manager of community engagement. “Because of privacy rules, we cannot speak to the specifics of any case. We are aware of this ongoing investigation and we are continuing to cooperate with authorities.”
None of the allegations have been proven in court and the defendants have at least three weeks to file a response.
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