Photo: Nicholas Johansen
A notorious former social worker in Kelowna could spend years in prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Ministry of Children and Family Development, and depriving the vulnerable native youth in his custody.
Robert Riley Saunders was arrested in December 2020 and charged with several counts of fraud over $ 5,000, breach of trust and forgery of a college degree, which he used to get a job at MCFD back in 1996. Saunders pleaded guilty last year for fraud over $ 5,000, breach of trust in connection with his duties as a guardian and use of a forged document.
His sentencing began Thursday morning.
A large group of Okanagan Nation Alliance members and others gathered outside the Kelowna courthouse on Thursday, calling for a harsh punishment for Saunders and for justice for the native children who fell victim to him. Many of them filled courtroom 3 to hear the sentencing.
During her speeches, Crown Prosecutor Heather Magnin noted that Saunders was targeting particularly vulnerable native children who had been removed from their homes by the MCFD, as he reckoned they would be less likely to speak up about their lack of support.
“The young people that Mr Saunders chose to make victims are part of a deeply marginalized and vulnerable group – indigenous children who have been removed from their families by the state,” Magnin said. “It is impossible to quantify the consequences of Mr. Saunders’ crimes on these young victims.
“At its core, Mr Saunders ‘crime represents a moral betrayal of the principles that are part of the ministry’s mandate to protect and support vulnerable children and young people … Mr. Saunders’ decision to take advantage of his position of trust over this marginalized and particularly vulnerable group is a breach of trust at the highest scale that necessitates a severe punishment. “
Magnin noted that Saunders increased his fraud during the seven years he committed it, and stole from more and younger youth as the years went by. In 2018, when he was eventually captured, he stole money intended to go to about half of the youth in his custody.
She also said that Saunders used his knowledge of the MCFD system and its “weaknesses” to extract the maximum amount he could for himself.
Despite having pleaded guilty deceives the governmenthas Saunders maintained that his actions never affected the youth in his custody. Judge Steven Wilson ultimately decidedly differentbut Magnin noted Thursday that Saunders lacks remorse for his actions.
“Comments made by Mr. Saunders himself in cross-examination and the report before the verdict reflect Mr. Saunders’ general lack of care or empathy for the young victims,” Magnin said. “This attitude demonstrates Mr. Saunders’ lack of insight into the nature or impact of his offenses against the young victims.”
In his pre-verdict report, he claimed that no charges would have been brought against him if it were not for the government’s settlement of a major class action lawsuit related to Saunders’ actions, and he complained that his story had been “kept in the media longer than those who committed serious crimes such as murder, rape or shootings.”
The author of the sentence report concluded that Saunders’ moral and ethical compass was “as good as he could get away with.”
Saunders was primarily motivated by “greed, pure and simple,” Magnin said, which was evident by lavish lifestyle he led while committing his crimes – driving a brand new pickup, buying a boat and an expensive home and taking several trips to Las Vegas and participating in hockey games.
His average salary was around $ 4,000 a month, and in 2017, his stolen funds tripled his legitimate earnings.
“As Mr. Saunders told the author of the pre-sentence report, he used the means to create an identity of both being rich and to associate with others who enjoyed a similar lifestyle,” Magnin said. “He agreed that his lifestyle up to 2018 significantly exceeded his legitimate means of financing it.”
Magnin also asked Judge Wilson to take into account the historical context in Canada of native youths who were taken from their homes by the government and abused.
“The court can and should take legal notice of this historical context, and the Supreme Court of Canada has certainly done so on many occasions in various contexts,” she said.
“The reality that Mr. Saunders chose to target native children in care is inseparable from Mr. Saunder’s crime and is an important factor in demonstrating the overall seriousness of this offense and the degree of moral guilt of this perpetrator. “
The sentencing began with statements about victim consequences from several of the youths who were under Saunder’s custody for years. The identity of the young people is subject to a ban on publication.
“I was a 15-year-old young man who was in the middle of chaos and I did not feel cared for,” wrote victim H.
“It was not fair and I did not deserve any of this. Riley robbed me of my youth and early adulthood, and even though he is no longer in my life, his actions will affect me for the rest of my life. I will never get those years back. ”
Another young man wrote about how he was just seven or eight years old when he first came into care at Saunders, and ended up moving to 13 different nursing homes throughout his youth.
“I often wonder what my life could have been if he had not been my social worker,” wrote victim E. “I think I could have been happy, healthy and an active person in the community. I’m afraid Riley, and I never want to have contact with Riley in the future. “
Victim Q wrote about how he was homeless and addicted to drugs while under Saunders’ care.
“As a result of my time under Riley’s care, my trust in the systems designed to support me has been shattered,” said victim Q. “When I was in Riley’s custody, he made me feel that I was “was a bad kid and he did not want to deal with me. I did not feel safe around him and I still feel threatened by him every day.”
Saunders’ defender is expected to serve his sentence on Friday. Judge Wilson is likely to adjourn his sentence to a later date.
Photo: Nicholas Johansen
Robert Riley Saunders