The Syilx Okanagan Nation is demanding a full-scale overhaul of the Ministry of Children and Family Development in the wake of a guilty plea by former Kelowna social worker Robert Riley Saunders.
Saunders reached a plea deal with prosecutors last week that saw him admit guilt to fraud over $5,000, breach of trust in connection with his duties as a child protection guardianship worker, and using a forged document. Ten other counts will be dropped at the completion of sentencing.
He stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from more than 100 Indigenous children in his care, leaving some destitute, homeless, addicted or in the sex trade. He worked as a social worker in Kelowna from 2001 until he was fired when the thefts were uncovered in 2018, and obtained the position with fraudulent credentials and a bogus degree.
“MCFD needs to take accountability for their complete failure in following through with their due diligence in ensuring they were hiring a true certified worker. They must put quality measures in place to ensure that such cases as these do not continue to take place. They need provide the structures that ensure that there are qualified, quality staff in place. Cases like that of Mr. Saunders puts children’s care at risk and a brings forward the need for more inclusion and participation by Syilx families and communities in the care of Syilx children,” said Chief Greg Gabriel, Syilx child and family governance representative.
The Okanagan Nation Alliance says the BC government’s “feeble” attempt at accountability for MCFD with the creation of the Representative for Children and Youth has accomplished little. Numerous representative reports have been tabled and ignored, ONA says.
The First Nation is also asking the government to clarify if it has contacted all the youth who were harmed by Saunders and have provided supports.
“The Saunders case has added to the long standing deep rooted history of ongoing injustices and systemic racism that our people suffer at the hands of MCFD. The atrocities our children, youth and families face on a daily basis by MCFD’s lack of quality assurances and cultural appropriateness persists on a daily basis. There is a distinct parallel of MCFD’s ongoing wilful ignorance of the harms to our people by their system and the ongoing wilful ignorance of the government to recognize the truth of Indian Residential Schools and the real actions required for true reconciliation. The systems purporting to serve the 'best interests' of our children and families requires a full-scale overhaul to transform the horrific outcomes our people experience,” said Jennifer Lewis, ONA wellness manager.
Saunders remains out on bail and will return to court for sentencing on March 21.
While the Crown and defence have reached an agreement that saw 10 charges dropped, that does not necessarily mean they have reached a full joint sentencing submission. Both sides may still enter the hearing with differing sentencing suggestions for the judge to consider. It is not uncommon for prosecutors to drop charges in a simple effort to avoid a lengthly, complex and possibly traumatic trial.