Social worker

Robert Riley Saunders

A proposed settlement for victims who suffered because of the actions and omissions of a Kelowna social worker highlights a larger problem with the system, says the BC Association of Social Workers.

The organization is calling on the Minister of Children and Family Development (MCFD) to take immediate action to strengthen the Social Workers Act after a proposed class action settlement was made public last week.

The settlement said the province is “vicariously liable” for the harm caused by social worker Robert Riley Saunders.

The terms entitle those who were victimized while in the ministry’s care to compensation ranging from $25,000 to $69,000; there are also additional payments for those who suffered “elevated damages,” including sexual exploitation, psychological/bodily harm and homelessness.

Harm done to those in Saunders’ care included misappropriation of funds and failure to plan for children’s welfare.

The Kelowna social worker is said to have opened joint bank accounts with dozens of children and teens, then transferred money meant for the children into his own account.

The proposed settlement could cost the province as much as $15 million.

Saunders worked for the ministry from 2001 until he was fired in 2018. He faces dozens of lawsuits for neglect, theft, and failing to preserve cultural identities. The victims included 85 Indigenous youth.

“Mr. Saunders was able to secure employment as a child welfare social worker with MCFD and allegedly steal money from 102 victims,” said Michael Crawford, president of the BC Association of Social Workers.

“He hurt the very children and youth he was hired to protect and care for.”

The association said not all social workers in B.C. are required to register with the BC College of Social Workers.

“Without registration, the public has no assurance that a social worker has committed to practice according to standards of practice established by the profession and to adhere to a strict code of ethics,” said Crawford. “Without registration, the public interest is not fully protected, and misconduct may go uninvestigated, and the social worker may be able to continue practising.”