Disgraced Kelowna social worker granted day parole after serving 14 months of 5-year sentence

Saunders granted day parole

The former Ministry of Children and Family Development social worker in Kelowna who stole nearly half a million dollars from vulnerable youth in his care has been granted day parol, despite the Parole Board finding his remorse to be “not fully authentic.”

Following a hearing earlier this month, the Parole Board of Canada granted Robert Riley Saunders day parole for a period of six months, meaning he can serve his sentence outside of a prison. The decision comes just 14 and a half months after he was handed a five-year sentence for fraud over $5,000, fraud/breach of trust as public officer, and using a forged document.

During the parole hearing, Saunders said there was no excuse for his offending, and likened his actions to an addiction, in which he “engaged in habitual behaviour, [was] numb to the consequences and [was] trying to compensate for inadequate feelings.”

During sentencing back in July 2022, Justice Steve Wilson said he didn't find Saunders to be remorseful for his actions, but Saunders told the Parole Board this was only due to “a legal strategy” orchestrated by his lawyers.

But a little more than 14 months since his sentencing, the Parole Board still does not believe Saunders is truly sorry for stealing from some of the communities' most vulnerable people.

“The Board found many of the words you used such as being ‘financially desperate' and sorry for ‘this mistake' as attempts to continue to lie and skirt full responsibility to the fact that your offending continued for a lengthy period, spanned approximately 850 separate transactions and that you committed the offences while having a first hand account of the real and imminent struggles of the youth you were supposed to be supporting,” the Parol Board states.

“The Board found that your remorse and level of accountability was not fully authentic and you were more focused on saying the right things.

“The Board found that you struggled with thinking about the consequences to others outside of yourself and had to be reminded that the youth you worked with were particularly vulnerable and your offending impacted important steps that have been taken towards reconciliation with Indigenous communities.”

Despite this, the Board noted that Saunders is a low-risk to reoffend upon release. But the Board expressed some concern with Saunders' uncertainty around his future employment options.

“You recognize the need to find work and support yourself in a legitimate manner but were also concerned about the type of work and whether you were capable of physical labour,” the Board states.

The Parole Board ultimately granted him day parole, although it's not clear where he will reside upon his release. The Board noted he's been accepted at a community residential facility (halfway house) in Alberta, but an assessment also supported him serving day parole at an “other location,” details of which appear to be redacted in the Parole Board release document.

He was ultimately granted day parole to this “other location.” Parole Board spokesperson Lisa Saether says an “other location” may be a private home or a facility which has "not been designated as a community-based residential facility."

Day parole usually allows an offender to spend time in the community and return nightly to a halfway house, unless "otherwise authorized by the Parole Board of Canada," as in this case.

An offender is eligible to apply for full parole after serving one-third of their sentence, and they're eligible to apply for day parole six months before their full parole eligibility date. As such, Saunders was eligible for day parole as of Sept. 25, and he'll be able to apply for full parole by the end of March 2024. At this time, the Correctional Service of Canada is supportive of his full parole when he's eligible.

Over a period of six and a half years, from 2011 to 2018, Saunders stole about $460,000 from vulnerable youth in his care, many of whom were Indigenous. He opened 24 joint bank accounts with those in his care and conducted about 850 separate transactions, siphoning funds intended for the youth.

“In considering your index offences, the Board is struck by your capacity for exploitation and manipulation. You used your employment, in a position of trust with vulnerable Indigenous youth, to financially exploit and defraud a system put in place to help young individuals who lack the opportunity and resources to help themselves,” the Parole Board states.

“Of particular concern, you carried out these offences repeatedly over a six year period despite witnessing firsthand that these funds were needed by the young people you were supposed to protect. The Board remains acutely aware that your offending caused Indigenous youth to suffer while you lived a lavish lifestyle and bragged about it to them.”

Following his guilty plea, Saunders claimed the youth in his care were not actually victimized by his fraud, and that only the government was defrauded out of the funds. But after a hearing in which Saunders and many of the youth under his care testified, Justice Wilson ruled the youth were in fact deprived.

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