The case of a Kelowna, B.C., social worker accused of stealing from hundreds of vulnerable children has unearthed years of trauma for Robert Riley Saunders's alleged victims. Advocates say the case also highlights troubling flaws in the child welfare system Saunders worked within.
Saunders disappeared from Kelowna when the first of more than a dozen lawsuits were filed against him in B.C. Supreme Court. He has never responded to any of the allegations.
The B.C. prosecution service is reviewing the results of an RCMP investigation that wrapped up this spring to determine if he should be charged criminally. But advocates and lawyers involved in the case say it would be a mistake to concentrate only on the actions of one man without shining a spotlight on the system he worked in.
According to court documents, Saunders faked a bachelor's degree in social work. He was warned about a conflict of fiduciary interest. And performance reviews suggested he could be seen to be "disinterested or not show appropriate sensitivity to Aboriginal culture/history."
Saunders was trusted in a role that made him a de facto parent for children in the care of the state. The vast majority of his victims — 85 of the 102 identified in a class-action lawsuit — were Indigenous.
"Is the fact that these kids were Aboriginal the reason why he was able to do what he did with confidence, knowing that he's operating in a system that will not bat an eyelid as to what is happening with the most vulnerable of the population?" asks Michael Patterson, a lawyer who represents numerous individual victims suing Saunders. "Is it systemic?"