Former Kelowna social worker paroled over Indigenous objections

A B.C. man who faked his qualifications to find employment as a social worker with B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Family Development and was convicted of defrauding vulnerable, primarily Indigenous, teens in his care in 2022 has been granted full parole.

Robert Riley Saunders, 54, served just 14 and a half months of a five-year sentence and was granted day parole nine months ago.

According to a Parole Board of Canada decision obtained by CBC News, he will be allowed to leave prison on July 14 after reaching the standard two-thirds of his sentence.

Indigenous chief opposed parole

During a full parole hearing, the two-member board agreed to hear a joint statement from affected Indigenous community leaders, noting their opposition.

"Succinctly stated, the impact of the harm you caused has been profound and long-lasting. The Chief who spoke emphasized that he and the others he represents are adamantly opposed to you receiving full parole. There is little faith you have changed."

Prison assessments ruled Saunders' crime was motivated by personal and financial greed and that he was at a low risk of reoffending.

The board noted he had no prior convictions.

That Saunders entered a guilty plea at trial was deemed a mitigating factor.

Dozens of at-risk youth defrauded

Saunders was hired by B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Family Development 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.

Former foster children, the majority of whom are Indigenous, had 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.

Many clients claim they were left homeless as a result of Saunders's behaviour. Some said they suffered physical and sexual abuse and ended up living with addiction.

Court heard he misappropriated more than $460,000 meant to go to children's care.

Saunders pleaded guilty in September 2021 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.

Following the plea deal, The Syilx Okanagan Nation Alliance called for the reform of B.C.'s child-care system.

In December 2018, the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development admitted Sauders's fraud and negligence after beginning an investigation in 2017. It outlined steps it said it took to protect affected children and youth since discovering Saunders had been abusing his position.

The province settled a multi-million-dollar class-action lawsuit in the case in 2021.