Many social workers in B.C. lack oversight due to regulations

Saunders lacked oversight

A recent class action settlement agreement over a former Kelowna social worker's alleged neglect and theft from dozens of at-risk youth could cost the provincial government upwards of $15 million. Saunders was never required to register with the profession's governing body, which the president of the BC Association of Social workers says resulted in a lack of oversight.

Robert Riley Saunders has been accused by dozens of former children in his care of stealing money that was meant to be used in their care, along with neglecting them. Many of the youth ended up homeless and sexually exploited, allegedly as a result of Saunders' actions. Last week, the B.C. government agreed to a class action settlement agreement that could see Saunders' alleged victims paid a maximum of $250,000 each, depending on the harm that was caused.

Saunders had worked for the Ministry of Children and Family Services since 1996, and while he claimed to have degrees in social work and psychology, his degrees turned out to be forged.

Michael Crawford, president of the BC Association of Social Workers, says unlike other healthcare professions like doctors, many social workers in B.C. aren't required to be registered with the B.C. College of Social Workers, due to a number of exemptions built into the province's regulations. Under these exemptions, employees working for the MCFD are not required to be registered with the profession's regulatory body, leading to what Crawford says is a lack of oversight.

“If Robert Riley Saunders, when he applied to the MCFD ... if he had been required to register with the College, they would have checked his credentials and likely would have found they were falsified,” Crawford said. “Just think how much pain and suffering would have been prevented.

“Just think of the huge benefit by having those social workers committed to practicing to a standard of practice established by their peers and a code of ethics.”

Crawford said it's been a multi-decade battle with the government to have the exemptions removed from the province's Social Workers Regulation, which would force all people in the province practicing social work to be registered with the College.

“I don't know why they refuse to do it, with the exception that they think that their internal processes are superior to what the College of Social Workers can provide, which is simply ludicrous,” Crawford said. “We don't think the public is very well served with social workers being able to practice in the province unregulated.

“It's just beyond us in our understanding in how the MCFD can refuse to require that their social workers be registered with the College.”

All social workers practicing in Alberta must be registered with the Alberta College of Social Workers but the requirements vary from province to province.

The class action settlement agreement must still be approved by a judge, which is expected to occur in the fall. A criminal investigation into Saunders has been completed, but the Crown has yet to approve any charges.

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