VANCOUVER — A proposed settlement agreement has been reached in the case of a British Columbia government guardian, who is alleged to have stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from vulnerable foster children.
Documents filed in B.C. Supreme Court say more than 100 children, most of them Indigenous, were left homeless and vulnerable to sexual exploitation and physical or psychological harm.
A proposed class-action lawsuit filed in 2018 alleged social worker Robert Riley Saunders siphoned away rent and other funds from those under his guardianship while he worked for the Ministry of Children and Family Development in Kelowna.
The settlement, which still needs to be approved by the court, says all claimants would be eligible for a basic payment of $25,000, with a maximum award of up to $250,000 for those who were Indigenous, left homeless, were physically harmed or whose education was delayed.
The court documents say the province has identified 107 foster children who may have been involved, two are dead and four have settled in separation actions. Ninety are believed to be Indigenous.
Jason Gratl, the lawyer for the plaintiff, said the allegations date back to 2001 and there may be more children involved. But poor or false records were kept.
"The records created by Riley Sanders tended to be false and self-serving because Riley Saunders was known to be a con-artist and a self-serving fraudster," Gratl said in an interview Wednesday.
He said employment records show that Saunders was insensitive to Aboriginal cultural and history, yet he was assigned to work with high-risk Indigenous children by the ministry.
Saunders has never commented on the allegations or filed a statement of defence in court.
In Victoria on Wednesday, Attorney General David Eby said it has always been the government's goal to ensure appropriate compensation for those affected.
He said additional financial controls have been put in place and there's more training and oversight of the ministry's workers to ensure no child faces the same situation.
"That is of vital importance to the government that we protect these kids. It's an incredibly heart-breaking situation that this happened."
In its reply to the lawsuit filed in court, the ministry admitted to "vicarious liability" for the acts and omissions of Saunders.
The reply said the ministry detected financial irregularities involving Saunders in December 2017 and he was suspended a month later.
"Steps were taken under the direction of the local (ministry) office to ensure the immediate safety and well-being of the children, youth and young adults on the case load of Mr. Saunders," the response to the civil claim said.
The prosecution service said it has received a report on Saunders from the RCMP and possible charges are being assessed.
Two lawsuits filed against the province and Saunders in 2018 alleged Saunders moved the children from their homes in order to make them eligible for financial benefits from the ministry, then opened joint bank accounts for each youth.
"Saunders stole the funds deposited by the ministry into joint bank accounts by moving them to his own individual account at Interior Savings and by paying his personal expenses by electronic transfer from the joint bank account," the statements said.
They also alleged Saunders was aware of the youths' vulnerability and aware that he exercised parental control over them.
A certification hearing for the class action is scheduled for July 28. If approved, it would allow an individual's case to stand in for all the class members.
A decision from the court on approval of the settlement is expected after the certification hearing.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 15, 2020.
Terri Theodore , The Canadian Press