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Disgraced former Kelowna social worker living with sister while on day parole

Saunders living with sister

After serving just 14 months of his five-year sentence in jail, Robert Saunders has lived at his sister’s house for the past six months. And the Parole Board recently extended his stay there for at least another three months.

Saunders, 54, was sentenced in July 2022 for stealing nearly $500,000 from his employer, the Ministry of Children and Family Development — funds that were meant to go to 24 vulnerable youth in his care. Many of the youth were Indigenous, and the sentencing judge said “it is difficult to imagine a more vulnerable population in Canada than youth who have been made wards of the state.”

Saunders worked for the Ministry of Children and Family Development for 23 years, despite having no university degree or social work accreditations.

In September 2021, he pleaded guilty to fraud over $5,000, breach of trust by a public officer and using a forged document, for faking his credentials.

Despite the five-year sentence, Saunders was granted day parole last October, which allowed him to leave prison. While day parole generally allows an offender to “participate in community-based activities” during the day, before returning to a halfway house at night, the Parole Board allowed Saunders to instead reside at his sister’s house.

The publicly-disclosed parole decision last fall only said Saunders had been released on day parole to an “other location,” but a recent decision from earlier this month specifies that he's been living at his sister's home. The Board did not disclose what city he's living in.

An offender is generally eligible to apply for full parole after completing a third of their sentence, while day parole can be applied for six months prior to that.

Earlier this month, Saunders applied for full parole, but the Board instead extended his day parole by three months, and ordered a proper hearing to assess his full parole eligibility. The Correctional Service of Canada has recommended full parole be granted.

Saunders noted that he plans to continue living with his sister and her husband if he’s granted full parole, so it’s not clear what exactly would change if he’s granted full parole.

The Board said his sister and brother-in-law “continue to be [his] main community supports.”

Remorseful?

Following his day parole hearing last October, the Parole Board said Saunders' purported remorse for his years of offending “was not fully authentic.”

“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 Parole Board stated.

“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.”

During Saunders' sentencing back in July 2022, Justice Steve Wilson said: “I do not find that he is remorseful and even now he seeks to blame others.”

But in this month's decision, the Parole Board says Saunders has “accepted responsibility for [his] actions, have recognized [his] problems and displayed guilt and victim empathy.”

Following the granting of his day parole, the First Nations Leadership Council condemned the decision.

“With this decision to grant Mr. Saunders parole, the Justice system has once again failed First Nations victims,” said Chief Don Tom, vice-president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. “First Nations people have been victimized by the Justice system for 200 years. It is clearly time for fulsome reform.”

Since his release, Saunders has begun working with a property developer/landscaping company. While the type of work he is doing was not disclosed, he told the Board last year he was concerned about whether he's capable of physical labour. Part of his parole conditions include not being employed in any position where he manages the finances of any person or business.

'Exploitation and manipulation'

From 2011 to 2018, Saunders stole about $462,385 from vulnerable youth in his care. He opened 24 joint bank accounts with those he was a guardian of 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 stated in October.

“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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