syilx and sqilx’w community members gathered outside of Kelowna Law Courts in syilx homelands Wednesday and Thursday to condemn fraudulent “social worker” Robert Riley Saunders during his sentencing hearing.
“These kids need to know that people actually care,” said Barb Dawson, a member of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation.
“They’re lost souls on the street and it’s because of one guy who is living it up on money who was meant for them. It shouldn’t happen. I really think that a deterrent needs to be made of him.”
Saunders was employed as a “social worker” with the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) from 1996 until his termination in 2018. The court heard that for a nearly two-year period during his tenure, between March 2016 and January 2018, he opened 24 joint bank accounts with vulnerable youth who were under his care. From there, he stole and misappropriated more than $460,000 in MCFD-issued independent living funds that were intended for the youth to cover both their rent and basic living expenses.
In 2019, it was discovered that he had forged his bachelor of social work degree. A class action lawsuit was settled by the MCFD in 2020, who said that Saunders “neglected and/or deliberately caused harm to children in the care of the Province.”
Court documents show that the class action consists of a total of 102 class members, with 85 class members being Indigenous youth. Through the lawsuit, Indigenous youth who were in Saunders’s care for at least 90 days are entitled to a basic payment of $69,000, plus additional money for any additional harms they may have incurred — up to a maximum of $250,000.
In September 2021, Saunders pleaded guilty for just three of 13 criminal charges. This included one count of fraud over $5,000, as well as “breach of trust in connection with his duties as a child protection guardianship worker” and “causing the Province of B.C. to act on a forged document.”
A Gardiner Hearing for Saunders was held between March 21 and March 31, 2022. A Gardiner Hearing is held to establish and determine aggravating or mitigating facts that could affect sentencing.
Following the Gardiner Hearing, Judge Steven Wilson ruled on May 20, 2022 that Crown counsel had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Saunders’s fraud caused a risk of deprivation for the youth under his care. B.C. Prosecution Services previously said that the remaining 10 charges are expected to be dropped after the sentencing.
Outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 22 and June 23 syilx and sqilx’w community members gathered at the courthouse steps, holding signs that denounced Saunders, called for the protection of Indigenous youth and called for a maximum sentence. People drummed and sang, and an Elder said a prayer and thanked the community for being present.
Prior to working as the band manager of the Lower Similkameen Band, Alex Terbasket was an addictions worker at the Ashnola At The Crossing treatment centre located in Keremeos in the smelqmix (Lower Similkameen region).
Around five years ago, Terbasket said that he had worked with a youth who was under Saunders’s care. That youth, Terbasket said, recently transcended into the Spirit World because of an overdose.
“Would things have been different if (the youth) wasn’t put through those upset stressors or the situations he was put through because of his circumstance?” Terbasket said.
He added that to have the community gather outside of the courthouse in honour of the youth is a powerful statement that he hopes echoes throughout the Nation and the non-Indigenous community as well.
“We would be here in the rain or snow if we had to, because that’s how important our children are to us and our community,” said Terbasket. “Our children are our future. I’m not here for myself. I’m here for my community and my community’s future.”
Laurie Wilson, a syilx Nation member, said that she has spent her whole career seeking justice for Indigenous youth against MCFD, previously working as a family law advocate for the Okanagan Nation Transition Emergency House before working with the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA).
“I met Mr. Saunders at a joint meeting with ONA Resources and MCFD Aboriginal Team. It must’ve been 15 or 18 years ago,” said Wilson. “We went with our teams to let them know about the services that ONA has to offer for our Aboriginal kids. His demeanor was just awful. He was an asshole. He was disparaging. He was disdainful. He just didn’t want to be there.”
She said that the injustices against Indigenous youth and families at the hands of MCFD has been going on for too long, and believes the system enabled Saunders.
“We’re here because we have a face to point to now,” said Wilson. “He was in a place where he thought that (doing) that (to youth) was okay.”
“Indigenous youth belong at home with their families and not in the MCFD system,” Wilson said, “as it’s the community who knows how to best take care of their kids.”
“It really has empowered the families. You look around here and there’s aunties. These are people who take responsibility for the young women in our communities,” she said. “Not because (these adults are) paid to, not because they’re told to. Because (the youth) belong there. They belong to us.”