‘Unforgivable breach of trust’: Social worker sentenced to 5 years in prison

Robert Riley Saunders stole money from vulnerable youth in his care, court heard

Robert Riley Saunders pleaded guilty to defrauding social work clients. Photo: APTN file

A disgraced British Columbia social worker has been sentenced to five years in prison for forging his university degree and defrauding the public.

Robert Riley Saunders, 52, was also penalized two years for breach of trust, to be served concurrently, as well as an additional month for forgery.

Saunders was sentenced last month.

“I don’t think justice has been served,” said one of his former clients.

“When people read the stories there’s a money aspect to it, but it is not just about money. He was an adult and he exploited youth.”

Saunders pleaded guilty in September 2021 to three of 13 charges, including fraud over $5,000 against the province, and breach of trust in connection with his duties as a child protection guardianship worker.

A ruling by British Columbia’s Supreme Court found Saunders abused his position as a social worker to steal more than $460,000 from the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD).

Court was told Saunders, with the help of his girlfriend at the time, forged a University of Manitoba degree and was hired by MCDF in Fort St. John. Five years later he transferred to Kelowna where he worked for five years.

A minor

The client, who APTN News is not identifying because she was a minor at the time and protected under a publication ban, was one of the victims and sexually assaulted while in foster care.

“The sentencing is absolute garbage because youth have died and faced homelessness and addiction and sexual exploitation. I think five years is really just a slap in the face to survivors,” she said in an interview Wednesday.

“I know Saunders himself said he was remorseful but as a survivor, I don’t believe it. If he felt remorseful he would not have run from the law and would have confessed to more crimes.”

Saunders told court he left B.C. and took a job landscaping in Alberta.

In addition to the criminal trial, many civil cases are ongoing because of Saunders’ fraudulent actions.

Justice Stephen Wilson said it was significant that so many of the victims were Indigenous.

“To say the relationship between Indigenous communities and families and the ministry’s apprehension of Indigenous youth is complicated, is an understatement,” said his written decision.

“While I have no specific information regarding the 24 youth victims in this case,” he added, “it is hard to imagine that these systemic factors have not played a significant role in the lives of the youth victims, including as to the circumstances that put them into the care of the ministry in the first place.”

Children in care

MCFD said 68 per cent of the 5,037 children in its care are Indigenous.

Mitzi Dean, minister for MCFD, said Saunders perpetrated “an unforgivable breach of trust.”

“I hope [his] sentencing brings victims some closure and helps them take a step forward in their journeys toward healing,” she said in a statement.

MCDF is providing support to the victims, Dean added.

In a separate legal action, the B.C. government settled a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit in October 2020 that alleged “Saunders defrauded many children in the care of the Ministry of their food, clothing and shelter allowances, leaving many of them destitute and homeless.”

Lawyer Michael Patterson said is clients were frustrated their concerns were ignored.

“They were ringing the alarm, they were complaining, they were telling people,” he said in an interview. “They were saying all the things that have just been found out, but no one would listen.

“I don’t believe he [Saunders] really understands the damage that he did to the kids that he was supposed to be a guardian social worker for,” Patterson added. “I believe in his mind all he was doing was taking money.”

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