The case of a Kelowna, B.C., social worker accused of stealing from hundreds of vulnerable children has unearthed years of trauma for Robert Riley Saunders’ alleged victims. Advocates say the case also highlights troubling flaws in the child welfare system Saunders worked within.
Craig cried on the day he learned Kelowna social worker Robert Riley Saunders was a liar. Because it meant his foster son — Stephen — wasn’t.
And like dozens of Saunders’ young, vulnerable teenage victims, it meant Stephen had been telling the truth years ago when he said he hadn’t spent government money provided for his care on drugs.
Stephen is one of at least 102 former foster children covered by a proposed multimillion dollar settlement of a class action lawsuit against B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development and Saunders, who worked as a guardianship social worker from 2001 to 2018. CBC News is not giving Stephen’s or Craig’s full names so as not to identify children who have been in care.
Craig — who has since stopped being a foster parent — said the cost of Saunders’ betrayal is incalculable.
“I bawled. I took this kid into my house and he trusted me, and I screwed him through Riley,” Craig said.
“It’s had a huge impact on these kids. And no one will ever know what impact it’s had. Like what if Stephen … what if Riley had actually given him rent and he did get a job?… It’s going to affect people for generations.”
Canada ‘Is it systemic?’
Stephen’s story is typical of both a pattern of abuse admitted by the ministry and of deeper concerns about systemic issues that allowed it to happen, according to lawyers and advocates for the victims.
Saunders disappeared from Kelowna when the first of more than a dozen lawsuits were filed against him in B.C. Supreme Court. He has never responded to any of the allegations.
The B.C. prosecution service is reviewing the results of an RCMP investigation which wrapped up this spring to determine if he should be charged criminally.
But advocates and lawyers involved in the case say it would be a mistake to concentrate only on the actions of one man without shining a spotlight on the system he worked within.
According to court documents, Saunders faked a bachelors’ degree in social work. He was warned about a conflict of fiduciary interest. And performance reviews suggested he could be seen to be “disinterested or not show appropriate sensitivity to Aboriginal culture/history.”
And yet he was trusted in a role that made him a de facto parent for children in the care of the state. And the vast majority of his victims — 85 of the 102 identified in the class action — were Indigenous.
“Is the fact that these kids were Aboriginal the reason why he was able to do what he did with confidence, knowing that he’s operating in a system that will not bat an eyelid as to what is happening with the most vulnerable of the population?” asks Michael Patterson, a lawyer who represents numerous individual victims suing Saunders.
“Is it systemic?”
Canada ‘We let him down’
Stephen, who is Métis, entered the foster care system when he was six.
According to court documents, he left Craig’s foster home when he was 17 and went into an independent living situation, with Saunders supposedly providing him money for rent and other necessities.
But Saunders allegedly took that money for himself.
And when people like Craig — who loves Stephen as a son — asked questions, Craig said Saunders assured them the kids were to blame.
“You trust Riley because he has a degree, and he’s really smart, and he’s really smooth,” said Craig.
“These kids. They don’t have anybody. Stephen had us, and we let him down.”
Stephen, who is now 28, said he never liked Saunders.
“There’s a lot of s— I got blamed for that I didn’t do and I got in s— for. And they wonder as I was growing up as a kid — they wonder why we didn’t like social workers,” Stephen said.
“They set us up to fail.”
Canada ‘This is unacceptable’
In a statement, B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development said there is systemic racism in the child welfare system.
“To what extent racism played a role in this case, we can’t say for certain,” the ministry said. “But we are taking the steps to make sure that there is support and fair compensation for people who are affected and to prevent it from happening again.”
The proposed settlement would provide $25,000 for anyone who was in Saunders’ care for 90 days or more with an additional $44,000 for Indigenous claimants.
Victims can then apply for up to $181,000 in additional damages related to physical abuse, sexual exploitation, homelessness and loss of education. A decision on whether the settlement is approved is expected next week.
The ministry said it has tightened financial controls and is working to see First Nations exercise greater jurisdiction over child and family services.
“For too long, system wide assumptions and practices have failed Indigenous children, families and communities,” the ministry said.
“This is unacceptable.”
Canada ‘They were worth more’
Cheryl Casimer is on the political executive of the First Nations Summit, a group that addresses issues concerning B.C. First Nations and tribal councils.
She supports an inquiry into racism in the foster care system — if it can happen without re-traumatizing the victims. She also wants to see criminal charges against Saunders.
“We’ve done too much talking already,” Casimer said.
“We’ve wasted a lot of time talking. We need to get some action.”
Patterson, the lawyer, said his clients are “baffled” by how long police and prosecutors have taken to make a decision on charges, because many of Saunders’ victims have been charged and jailed over the most petty offences.
B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth Jennifer Charlesworth finds the case troubling — not just in its details, but in what it reveals about young people let down by a state that was supposed to protect them.
“I suspect that many of the young people didn’t feel like they would get anywhere if they raised their concerns,” she says.
“And they didn’t know that they were worth more.”
Canada ‘We’re not lying’
Craig is a second-generation foster parent. His mother took in kids, and he fostered for two decades.
“There’s lots of problems with the foster care system,” he said.
“But I think we have a bunch of good people that are trying to make it as good as they can. And I think Riley was a wake-up call for all of them.”
Stephen has struggled for years with addiction to drugs like crack. He is trying to stay clean and be positive with the goal of using any money he gets from a settlement to obtain the necessary qualifications to assist troubled youth.
His biggest hope is that Saunders’ past lies will make it easier for future foster kids to be believed.
“Maybe they’ll listen to what foster kids are saying,” he said. “(And they’ll think) we’re not lying.”