CBC Investigates

Children's advocate investigating 14 files on social worker's alleged theft from teens

B.C.'s representative for children and youth says her office has opened 14 files relating to teenagers who claim they were victims of a social worker accused of siphoning funds from vulnerable First Nations youth.

Jennifer Charlesworth says RCMP are examining allegations Robert Riley Saunders stole from teens

Robert Riley Saunders is being sued as part of a proposed class action lawsuit which claims the social worker stole money from vulnerable First Nations teens. (Facebook)

B.C.'s representative for children and youth says her office has opened 14 files relating to teenagers who claim they were victims of a social worker accused of siphoning funds from vulnerable First Nations youth.

Jennifer Charlesworth says her office has been aware of allegations against Robert Riley Saunders for several months and has been in constant contact with the Ministry of Children and Family Development about its concerns.

The issue became public Tuesday with the filing of a proposed class action lawsuit claiming Saunders rendered a teenage girl homeless by moving her out of stable care, helping her open a joint bank account and then stealing money provided by the ministry.

The notice of civil claim — which was filed by the Public Guardian and Trustee — says dozens of mostly Aboriginal teens may be affected.

'We need to get information'

Charlesworth says her office became aware of the allegations on June 4.

But she says communication with the ministry has been frustrated by a sweeping publication ban and sealing order on a related B.C. Supreme Court file initiated earlier this year.

B.C.'s representative for children and youth, Jennifer Charlesworth, says her office has opened 14 advocacy files related to allegations involving Robert Riley Saunders. (InWithForward)

Charlesworth says she can't comment on the details of that case. She says the ministry sought the publication ban in order to protect the children involved, but her office and the public guardian and trustee are now seeking to have it lifted.

She hopes their application will be heard in the next few weeks.

"We want to understand what's the period of time that this has gone on, how have they identified the young people, how are they reaching out to these people and really assessing the fulsome impact," she said.

"We need to get information on the scope and impact in order for us to figure out how best to support these young people and advocate on their behalf."

Ongoing investigation

The proposed class action was one of two suits filed against the ministry, Saunders, and Interior Savings Financial on Tuesday.

The other involves a young Kelowna man who also claims Saunders stole money from him while he was in ministry care. Both involve alleged thefts said to have taken place in 2016.

The proposed class action lawsuit claims that dozens of mostly Aboriginal teenagers may have been affected. (Roman Bodnarchuk/Shutterstock)

The ministry has declined to comment on the allegations while they are before the courts. A spokesperson for Interior Savings Financial said they are aware of the "ongoing investigation" and are co-operating with authorities.

Saunders could not be reached for comment. He has taken his Facebook page down in the past 24 hours.

Charlesworth says RCMP are also investigating.

She says she has been assured that Saunders is no longer working with ministry "in any capacity."

'It's a significant frustration'

The Office of the Representative of Children and Youth has the responsibility to provide individual advocacy for young people under the age of 19 entitled to government services.

Charlesworth says her office has been working on behalf of 14 teenagers. But she has also been trying to assess the systemic allegations.

Two B.C. Supreme Court notices of civil claim were filed this week in relation to allegations that social worker Robert Riley Saunders siphoned money from vulnerable youth. (David Horemans/CBC)

"When we became aware of this, we raised our concerns with the minister. I've met with the minister on this," she said. "And we will continue to do so."

She says much of what she knows about the allegations comes from the young people themselves. But the sealing order in relation to the ongoing court matter has prevented the full sharing of information.

"It's a significant frustration," she said.

"We want to make sure that these kids have the advocacy support and that we are seeking remedies and we are doing whatever we can to make sure that they are safe and they are supported and that whatever harm has been caused to them through these actions is addressed."

Physical and psychological health

The proposed class action says the provincial director of child welfare is also at fault; it claims Saunders' team leader didn't hold weekly and monthly consultations that might have flagged issues with the well-being of teenaged clients.

The lead plaintiff says her physical and psychological health have suffered through circumstances that saw her living on the street and vulnerable to exploitation.

The issue of vulnerable youth aging out of foster care without proper support has made headlines in B.C. in recent years and has been an ongoing concern to the representative for children and youth.

Charlesworth says she is very troubled by the allegations currently before the courts.

"The apparent emotional harm is very hard to hear," she said. "That never ever gets light for me when I see that kind of impact on young people. And there's all sorts of other layers of harm that may well have happened as well."

Saunders, the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the credit union have yet to file responses to the claims.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

With files from Paisley Woodward

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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