Photo: Nicholas Johansen
A disgraced former Kelowna social worker could spend years in prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Department of Children and Family Development, leaving the vulnerable Indigenous youth under his care.
Robert Riley Saunders was arrested in December 2020 and charged with multiple counts of fraud exceeding $5,000, breach of trust, and falsifying a college degree, which he used to land a job with the MCFD in 1996. Saunders pleaded guilty last year to $5,000 fraud, breach of trust in connection with his duties as a child custody officer, and use of a forged document.
His sentencing hearing began Thursday morning.
A large group of members of the Okanagan Nation Alliance and others gathered outside the Kelowna courthouse on Thursday, calling for a harsh sentence for Saunders and for justice for the indigenous children he victimized. Many of them packed Courtroom 3 to hear the sentencing submissions.
During her submissions, District Attorney Heather Magnin noted that Saunders was targeting particularly vulnerable Indigenous children who had been removed from their homes by the MCFD because he believed they would be less likely to speak up about their lack of support.
“The youth Saunders chose to be victims of are part of a deeply marginalized and vulnerable group — Indigenous children who have been removed from their families by the state,” Magnin said. “The impact of Mr Saunders’ crimes on these youth victims is impossible to quantify.
“At its core, Mr Saunders’ crime represents a moral betrayal of the principles that are part of the Department’s mandate to protect and support vulnerable children and young people… Mr Saunders’ decision to abuse his position of trust about this marginalized and particularly vulnerable group is a breach of trust on the highest scale that requires a severe punishment.”
Magnin noted that Saunders ramped up his fraud in the seven years he started it, stealing with the years from more and younger youths. In 2018, when he was finally caught, he stole money intended to go to about half of the young people under his care.
She also said Saunders used his knowledge of the MCFD system and its “weaknesses” to get the maximum amount he could for himself.
Despite being guilty of government defrauding, Saunders insists his actions have never affected the youth he cares for. Justice Steven Wilson ultimately ruled otherwise, but Magnin noted on Thursday that Saunders does not regret his actions.
“Comments made by Mr. Saunders himself during cross-examination and the report of the previous sentence reflect Mr. Saunders’s overall lack of concern or empathy for the youth victims,” Magnin said. “This attitude is a testament to Mr Saunders’ lack of understanding of the nature or impact of his wrongdoing against the youth victims.”
In his report for the previous sentence, he claimed that no criminal charges would ever have been filed against him if the government had not settled a major class action lawsuit related to Saunders’ actions, and he complained that his story was “longer in the media than those who have committed serious crimes such as murder, rape or shootings.”
The author of the pre-sentence report concluded that Saunders’ moral and ethical compass was “as good as he could get away with it.”
Saunders was motivated primarily by “greed, pure and simple,” Magnin said, which was evident in the lavish lifestyle he led as he carried out his crimes: driving a brand new pickup truck, buying a boat and an expensive house, and multiple trips. to Las Vegas and attend hockey games.
His average salary was about $4,000 a month, and in 2017 his stolen money tripled his legitimate earnings.
“As Mr Saunders told the author of the pre-sentence report, he used the money to create an identity of both being wealthy and associating with others who had similar lifestyles,” Magnin said. “He agreed during cross-examination that his lifestyle leading up to 2018 was significantly higher than his legitimate means to fund it.”
Magnin also asked Judge Wilson to consider the historical context in Canada of Indigenous youths who were taken from their homes and mistreated by the government.
“The court can and should take legal notice of this historical context and certainly the Supreme Court of Canada has done so on many occasions in different contexts,” she said.
“The reality that Mr Saunders chose to target Indigenous children in care cannot be separated from Mr Saunders’ crime and is an important factor in determining the overall seriousness of this crime and the degree of moral guilt of Mr. to prove this perpetrator.”
The sentencing hearing began with victim statements from several young people who had been under Saunders’ care for years. The identity of the young people is subject to a publication ban.
“I was a 15-year-old boy in the midst of chaos and I didn’t feel cared for,” wrote Victim H.
“It wasn’t fair and I didn’t deserve this. Riley robbed me of my childhood 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’ll never get those years back.”
Another youngster wrote of how he was just seven or eight years old when he first came into the care of Saunders, eventually moving to 13 different foster homes during his childhood.
“I often wonder what my life could have been if he hadn’t been my social worker,” wrote victim E. “I believe I could have been happy, healthy and an active person in the community. I’m afraid of Riley and I don’t want any contact with Riley in the future.”
Victim Q wrote about being homeless and addicted to drugs while under Saunders’ supervision.
“As a result of my time under Riley’s care, my trust in the systems meant to support me has been destroyed,” said Victim Q. “While under Riley’s care, he made me feel like a naughty child. and he wanted nothing to do with me. I didn’t feel safe with him and I still feel threatened by him every day.”
Saunders’ counsel is expected to rule on Friday. Justice Wilson will likely postpone his sentencing to a later date.
Photo: Nicholas Johansen
Robert Riley Saunders