A Kelowna man who lied about his qualifications as a social worker and was subsequently accused of siphoning money from dozens of vulnerable youth has pleaded guilty to charges of fraud and breach of trust.
Robert Riley Saunders pleaded guilty to three of 13 charges, including fraud over $5,000 against the province, breach of trust in connection with his duties as a child protection guardianship worker, and causing the province to act on a forged document, the B.C. Prosecution Service confirmed on Monday.
Saunders, who eluded civil officials for months after the allegations first surfaced, was arrested in Alberta in December 2020. The B.C. Prosecution Service says he is free on bail.
A sentencing hearing is scheduled for March 21, 2022.
Former foster children, the majority of whom are Indigenous, have accused Saunders of steering them away from stable, loving homes onto the street or more independent living situations when they were children. They said he then used joint bank accounts to take government aid for himself, when it was meant to fund their care.
The alleged offences happened from 2001 until Saunders, 50, was fired from the Ministry of Children and Family Development in 2018.
Many clients claim they were left homeless as a result of Saunders’ behaviour. Some said they suffered physical and sexual abuse and ended up living with addiction.
The province settled a multi-million-dollar class-action lawsuit in the case last year.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs said that more than 100 victims had come forward to register claims. As anyone who was in Saunders’ care is eligible to receive between $25,000 and $250,000 in compensation, the province could pay out as much as $15 million.
Saunders was first hired by the ministry in 1996. He used a fake bachelor of social work degree made out to be from the University of Manitoba, as part of his original employment applications, according to court filings.
He worked in Kelowna, B.C., but vanished from the Okanagan city after he was fired.
Lawyers involved in the class-action lawsuit said they couldn’t find Saunders to serve him with the lawsuit, but that they’d heard rumours he spent part of the last two-and-a-half years working at golf courses in Calgary and Winnipeg.