MCFD admits responsibility

UPDATE: 4:45 p.m.

The lawyer who filed the class-action lawsuit against a Kelowna-based social worker says he will meet with the province to determine their next steps forward after the Ministry of Children and Family Development admitted liability for the social worker's alleged theft from at-risk Indigenous youth. 

"In my view the next step is that my office and potential class members will collaborate with the province to negotiate an appropriate process for assessing the harm done to each of the children and compensating the children in proportion to the harm caused," Jason Gratl said.

The government says in its response to the notice of civil claim that Saunders' employment with the province was terminated in May.

"The province admits Mr. Saunders was negligent ... committed misfeasance in public office, fraud and breached fiduciary duties owed to (the children) and further admits that the (children) suffered harm as a result," the document says.

The ministry says it has taken steps to review financial controls and ensure funds are not misappropriated, and it has offered supports and services including counselling to the children and youth who were affected since the allegations came to light.

The government says it will respond "in due course" to separate but related lawsuits that were filed in Kelowna court, and that its response on Thursday was only to the specific action filed by the public guardian and trustee.

The lawsuits allege that Saunders "engaged in the same and similar unlawful and inexcusable activities in respect to dozens of other children in his care, most of whom are Aboriginal children."

Gratl alleges that as much as $40,000 each was taken from children between the ages of 15 and 19 and that the fraud had been going on for a minimum of four years.

The statements of claim allege that in early 2016, Saunders moved the children in order to make them eligible for financial benefits from the ministry and he opened joint bank accounts for each youth.

They allege Saunders was aware of the youths' vulnerability and aware that he exercised parental control over them.

The lawsuits say that Saunders exercised complete control over every aspect of the plaintiffs' lives, including where they would live, access to family members, their cultural heritage, services and financial help.

Interior Savings helped Saunders by having the children sign forms opening joint accounts but didn't tell them that the accounts were with Saunders, the statements of claim allege.

– with files from The Canadian Press

ORIGINAL: 12:30 p.m.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development admits "vicarious liability" for the actions of a Kelowna social worker accused of stealing money from vulnerable youths in his care.

The ministry filed its response Thursday in Vancouver Court Registry to a court action filed by the public guardian and trustee involving former Kelowna social worker Robert Riley Saunders.

In its response, the ministry also agrees that general damages and court-ordered interest for the plaintiff in one of several lawsuits, involving multiple youth, is appropriate.

"The province admits Mr. Saunders was negligent, defalcated and converted the plaintiff's funds, committed misfeasance in public office, fraud and breached fiduciary duties owed to the plaintiff and further admits the plaintiff suffered harm as a result," the document reads.

It goes on to state Saunders admitted to the conversion of funds in March of this year, and steps were taken to ensure the immediate safety of children and youth on his caseload. A forensic audit was initiated, and the matter reported to police.

MCFD will be launching a separate review of its contracting and payment processes.

"Since the allegations first came to light, the ministry has offered supports and services, including counselling, to the children and youth who were affected by the social worker's actions," the ministry said in a press release.

"MCFD will work with the plaintiffs' counsel to address these matters in a manner that does not cause further trauma to the affected individuals."

Thursday's response applies only to the specific action filed by the public guardian and trustee.

The ministry says will respond to each of the other legal actions in due course.

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