Class action lawsuit against Kelowna social worker prompts calls for better oversight

Robert Riley Saunders

Robert Riley Saunders was a social worker with the Ministry of Children and Family Development in B.C. Photo: APTN file

A class action lawsuit against a former B.C. social worker has officials asking whether child protection social workers should be required to register with an external regulator.

“There should be a mandatory registration of social workers,” says Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chal-nulth Tribal Council and spokesperson for Usma Nuu-chah-nulth Family & Child Services.

The B.C. College of Social Workers (BCCSW), under the authority of the Social Workers Act, has a mandate to confirm the qualifications of its membership, but social workers who work with MCFD are not required to register.

The issue is being raised because of the case of Robert Riley Saunders.

He’s accused of stealing basic living allowances from an estimated 102 children — 85 of whom were Indigenous — who were in the care of the B.C. government. Saunders was responsible for these kids as a social worker with the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) in Kelowna.

The children Saunders allegedly stole from are eligible to receive between $25,000 and $250,000 each, as per a settlement agreement reached last week with the B.C. government and approved by the B.C Supreme Court. But what’s being done to ensure this kind of alleged abuse doesn’t happen again?

According to court documents, Saunders listed fake qualifications on his résumé. He claimed to have a Bachelor in Social Work from the University of Manitoba, when in fact he didn’t.

Sayers, who is also a lawyer, says strong oversight of any profession is essential.

“All professions — we all seem to have an oversight body. If you want to check up on a lawyer, you go to the law society.”

She says employers considering whether to hire a social worker, “should be able to go there, find he’s in good standing and then go to the references.”

Michael Crawford, president of the B.C Association of Social Workers which works to support and promote the profession of social work and to advocate for social justice, argues that all social workers in the province should be registered with — and regulated by — the B.C. Association of Social Workers.

Registering with an independent oversight body means committing to adhering to practice standards and a code of ethics established by your peers, Crawford says.

“The B.C. Association of Social Workers has for decades taken the position, with this government and previous governments, that the title of ‘social worker’ needs to be protected,” he says.

“Everytime someone in the ministry is referred to as a ‘social worker’, we wonder, is this person really a social worker or not?”

The law firm representing claimants in the class action lawsuit against Saunders argues that MCFD “failed to properly supervise Riley Saunders and failed to implement sufficient policies and safeguards to prevent and detect the fraud and neglect.”

IndigiNews contacted MCFD for comment on their stance on registering social workers with the BCCSW, but they did not respond prior to publication.

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