Payments to victims of former Kelowna social worker to start flowing after court approves settlement

Court approves settlement

A class-action settlement over a former Kelowna social worker who defrauded possibly hundreds of Indigenous youth in his care has been approved by the B.C. Supreme Court, but the search for more victims is expected to continue for years. 

The settlement approved Friday will see anyone who was in the care of Robert Riley Saunders for 90 days receive at least $25,000, up to a maximum of $250,000, depending on their individual case and level of harm they received. 

Jason Gratl, the lawyer representing the class action, says the province is required to send out base payments within 30 days of the settlement being approved. Financial workshops are being set up for all class members in November and December.

It is estimated that the class settlement will cost the provincial government $8M, but that figure could grow as more of Saunders' victims come forward. Gratl estimates there could be upwards of 200 victims, all which have until October 2022 to come forward. 

On top of the class settlement, victims that suffered particularly badly as a result of Saunders may opt out of the class action settlement and opt to pursue more than $250,000. Gratl suspects between $4M and $6M will be paid out to those victims. The government is also on the hook for legal fees.

“The settlement agreement is optimal for class members and they will receive as much or more than they would ordinarily get in the Supreme Court process with a much less painful process,” Gratl told Castanet, adding he is “delighted” to get the settlement approved after years of litigation.

Saunders is alleged to have set up joint bank accounts for vulnerable youth in ministry care and siphoned off their funds for his own benefit, leaving them in many cases homeless, sexually exploited or suffering from addiction. The scheme spanned years, perhaps as far back as 2001, until he was caught and admitted to the “conversion of funds” in March 2018, said the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

Saunders has not been criminally charged, but Gratl suspects that could change “any day now.”

RCMP have already handed the file over to Crown prosecutors, which are now faced with attempting to prove charges beyond just fraud, such as reckless endangerment or failing to provide the necessities of life, suggested Gratl.

“[Those charges] might be more textured and nuanced, but there is significant public interest in bringing those charges,” Gratl said, comparing the case to one involving police misconduct.

“I can’t imagine that charges wouldn’t be forthcoming.”

The ministry says it has revised its policies to ensure children cannot be defrauded by their social workers in the same way moving forward, but wider systemic change has not materialized.

“Certainly, a watchful ministerial eye is pointed at the Kelowna aboriginal high-risk office,” Gratl said. “But we did not achieve transparency in that level of institutional reform.”

“There is a deep level of abusive conduct and negligence on the part of Riley Saunders that ought to have been detected by his coworkers. It may have well have been detected by some of his coworkers, without anything being done about it.”

“We have not received credible evidence that there has been change on that front,” he added.

Gratl is urging anyone who was in the care of Saunders to come forward as soon as possible.

Since it was discovered that Saunders held fraudulent degrees in both social work and psychology, the BC Association of Social Workers has been calling for better independent oversight of provincial MCFD employees.

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