More children stolen from

November 08, 2018

UPDATE: 10:25 a.m.

B.C.’s children’s watchdog says 14 advocacy files have been opened, claiming a social worker stole money from aboriginal children – and there could be more victims.

Jennifer Charlesworth says in her experience she has never come across a case like this.

“These kinds of cases are heartbreaking because it is one person’s actions that can cause tremendous harm to these young people,” she said.

Two lawsuits claim Kelowna-based Robert Riley Saunders misappropriated money that was meant for aboriginal children in government care. A class-action lawsuit filed in Vancouver involves numerous underage plaintiffs, and a civil claim filed in Kelowna involves a West Kelowna resident.

Charlesworth says her office has been aware of the allegations since June.

“The ministry is eager to share information with us, but have unfortunately not been able to,” she said, due to a sealing order on the file.

Even though Charlesworth has significant power to request files, Attorney General’s Ministry lawyers have said nothing can be shared.

“We’ve been hampered with gathering the information to understand the scope and duration,” she said.

While it is not clear how long Saunders was in his role as a social worker, Charlesworth says it has been for quite some time. “There have been concerns raised in the past,” she said.

Okanagan College confirmed Wednesday night that Saunders now works in adult special education in a contract term position.

“I think the most important thing is that every effort be made by the government to provide the support and services to these young people who can’t go back in time, but help them go forward in such a way that they receive the support to address the emotional harm and financial harm,” Charlesworth said.

Anyone who believes they might have fallen victim to Saunders is asked to the office of the Representative of Children and Youth at 1-800-476-3933.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

ORIGINAL: 5 a.m.

A Kelowna social worker accused of stealing money from aboriginal children under care of the provincial government is now working at Okanagan College in a role that again places him in a position of authority over vulnerable people.

Public affairs director Allan Coyle confirmed Wednesday that Robert Riley Saunders is employed in a contract term position at the college in adult special education.

A pair of unsettling lawsuits claim Saunders misappropriated money over multiple years that was meant for aboriginal children while they were in government care.

Okanagan College says it is aware of the civil lawsuits and that Saunders is currently on leave.

“We take the safety of our students very seriously, and when we become alert to situations that are cause for concern, we take appropriate action,” said Coyle.

A class-action lawsuit filed in Vancouver involves numerous underage plaintiffs. The civil claim filed in Kelowna involves just one – a West Kelowna resident. Both lawsuits are nearly identical in their allegations.

When called at his number in the college directory, Saunders answered the phone, but said “sorry” and hung up when Castanet identified itself.

Lawyer Michael Patterson, who is representing the West Kelowna plaintiff, says the amount stolen from his client totals $47,000, and there could be more than 50 victims.

At times, the victim was homeless because of Saunder’s actions, states the lawsuit.

“In early 2016, Saunders moved the plaintiff from a stable home environment into an unstable residential or independent living arrangement in order to make the plaintiff eligible for payment of certain financial benefits by the ministry,” the lawsuit claims.

“Saunders then opened a joint bank account with the plaintiff at Interior Savings. Saunders stole the funds deposited by the ministry into a joint bank account by moving them to his own bank account at Interior Savings and by paying his personal expenses by electronic transfer from the joint bank account.”

The ministry declined comment. The allegations have yet to be proven in court.

– with files from Colin Dacre