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Kelowna ex-social worker lived a ‘lavish life’, youth in care had ‘no proper clothes’: Court

The hearing for disgraced social worker Robert Riley Saunders continued in court
Robert Riley Saunders. (File)

A prolific fraudster in Kelowna lived a “very lavish lifestyle for a social worker”, said one of his former co workers at Kelowna Indigenous Family Services.

Robert Riley Saunders appeared in court for the second day of his Gardiner hearing after he pled guilty to defrauding youth in his care in September 2021.

Saunders was indicted on 13 charges in December 2020, including 10 counts of fraud over $5,000, one count of theft over $5,000, one count of breach of trust and one count of uttering a forged document.

His guilty plea came after the resolution of a class-action lawsuit in 2020.

The suit accused Saunders of stealing the funds deposited into accounts of youth in his care, leaving them homeless and subject to abuse, as well as vulnerable to substance use disorders.

However, Saunders did not agree to some of the facts the Crown alleges and a Gardiner hearing is now taking place over five days to determine the validity of those facts.

Due to several publication bans put in place for the hearing, witnesses cannot be named.

Two of Saunders’s co-workers have testified in court this week, stating that he had a poor work ethic and alleged that there was a lack of supervision by the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD)for Saunders.

“With the female staff there was a very high degree of accountability,” that was not upheld in regards to Saunders, said one co-worker.

A co-worker of Saunders said she noticed suspicious activity relating to Saunders’ case files. She went through Saunders’ cases she found multiple cheques issued for $579 twice a month labelled as funds for independent living agreements.

She alleges that the numerous cheques were indented for youth that was not on an independent living agreement.

She said that some of the youth named were incarcerated and others in foster care or not living independently.

The co-worker also alleges that Saunders’ did not keep adequate notes on his cases. She stated that his files were “thin”.

Another social worker that was on the same guardianship team as Saunders took the stand for the first time on Tuesday (March 22).

She took over care for many of Saunders’ cases in 2018 when he was under investigation.

“There were almost no case notes,” she said. “I was shocked.”

She said that she had to locate many of the youth listed under Saunders’ care. One girl was found in poor condition.

“At the time I found her she had no proper clothes and she needed a haircut,” said the guardianship worker. She stated that the young girl is in better condition now and doing well.

One youth testified that the only funds he received from Saunders were vouchers or cheques that can only be used at a select few stores. The guardianship worker that took the stand today said that vouchers are only to be used when the youth has used up their allocated funds for the month and still has expenses or if a youth has difficulty budgeting.

The youth alleges that he was only receiving up to $240 per month in vouchers while under the guardianship of Saunders. The co-worker stated that the youth was entitled to over $500 in money for groceries alone.

The Crown alleged that Saunders set up joint bank accounts for many of the youth in his care, which he used to steal funds from the MCFD that were meant for their food and shelter.

He is also accused of using a forged university diploma to get a job as a social worker. According to the Crown, he claimed to have a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Manitoba despite having no social work credentials.

Of the 107 alleged victims of Saunders, 90 identify as Indigenous. Two are dead and four have settled in separation actions. Several youths have experienced hardship allegedly due, in part, to the actions of Saunders during their youth. Many of his victims have suffered from substance use disorders, homelessness and physical and mental abuse.

The Garnier Hearing will continue on Wednesday.

READ MORE: ‘Self-centred’: Former colleague testifies against disgraced Kelowna social worker

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Jacqueline Gelineau

About the Author: Jacqueline Gelineau

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