B.C. social worker stole from dozens of First Nations teens, lawsuit alleges

A proposed class action lawsuit has been filed against a B.C. social worker accused of abusing his position by siphoning funds from the bank accounts of dozens of vulnerable First Nations teens.

Proposed class action claims Robert Riley Saunders stole from and exploited First Nations youths in care

The notice of civil claim for the proposed class action lawsuit claims 'dozens of other children' were involved. (Roman Bodnarchuk/Shutterstock)

A proposed class action lawsuit has been filed against a B.C. social worker accused of abusing his position by siphoning funds from vulnerable First Nations teenagers.

The B.C. Supreme Court notice of civil claim was filed on behalf of the Public Guardian and Trustee and focuses on the alleged experience of the lead plaintiff, a teenage girl.

She accuses Robert Riley Saunders of moving her from a stable home into an independent living situation that would see her collect money from the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

The claim says Saunders then opened a joint bank account with the girl and "stole the funds deposited by the ministry into the joint bank accounts by moving them to his own individual account."

"She's a teenager. And she was rendered homeless, transient as a result of the fraud against her," said Jason Gratl, the girl's lawyer.

"The impact has been very severe. She was vulnerable to exploitation as a result of being homeless and was, in fact, exploited."

'Dozens of other children'

The proposed class action was filed on behalf of B.C.'s Public Guardian and Trustee, who acts as the teen's guardian. She is known as R.O.

The defendants include Saunders, the ministry and the bank where the account was allegedly opened.

Gratl estimates that between 25 and 90 children could be eligible to be part of the suit if accepted.

The proposed class action lawsuit was filed in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver. A separate action was filed in B.C. Supreme Court in Kelowna. (David Horemans/CBC)

The court document claims Saunders "engaged in the same and similar unlawful and inexcusable activities in respect of dozens of other children in his care, most of whom are Aboriginal children."

The Ministry of Children and Family Development would not comment on the case as it is before the courts. Saunders could not be reached for comment.

The notice of civil claim was filed in Vancouver on the same day as another action containing similar allegations was filed in Kelowna.

The plaintiff in that action — N.D. — is now an adult. But because he was a First Nations youth in the care of the province at the time of the allegations, his lawyer said he plans to ask the court for anonymity in the future.

'Complete control over every aspect of [her] life'

According to the claim filed by R.O., she was moved to an independent living situation in 2016. She claims she was manipulated into opening a joint bank account, and that Saunders failed to ensure she had adequate care and support.

"Saunders was verbally and emotionally abusive to the plaintiff. Saunders derided the plaintiff and her family," the notice of claim says.

"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 ... her cultural heritage."

The B.C. Supreme Court proposed class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of B.C.'s Public Guardian and Trustee who acts as the plaintiff's guardian. (Canadian Press)

According to the notice of civil claim, R.O.'s physical and psychological health suffered because of the alleged actions and "her trust and confidence in parental authority have been severely compromised."

R.O. claims the provincial director of child welfare is also at fault.

"The director failed to implement adequate systems, restraints and controls to detect and prevent Saunders' misappropriation of funds and benefits," the lawsuit reads.

"The director failed to conduct reviews of Saunders' files to detect whether Saunders was carrying out his duties appropriately and in accordance with the plaintiff's best interests."

Aboriginal high-risk youth allegedly targeted

The suit also claims the director was aware of previous instances of alleged misconduct by Saunders but failed to implement controls that would have detected problems.

The suit filed by N.D. accuses Saunders of seeking out and exploiting Aboriginal high-risk youth.

"Saunders knew that if Aboriginal high-risk youth complained about this, his supervisors and managers and (the bank) would likely not listen to them," the suit says.

Both lawsuits make claims against Saunders for alleged negligence, misfeasance of public office and fraud. The plaintiffs claim the province is vicariously liable for his alleged actions.

Saunders, the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the bank named in the suit have yet to file responses to the claims.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

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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