Negotiations in proposed class action involving former Kelowna social worker underway

Warning: This story contains details some readers may find disturbing. Discretion is advised. 

A young woman, who was taken from her mother when she was just three years old, says in court documents that she was repeatedly put in homes with abusive foster parents, and her social worker stole her money.

The woman, who cannot be identified because she was a minor at the time, named the Ministry of Children and Family Development as a defendant in her case. It has now filed a response.

In a third-party notice, the province says it is not vicariously liable for the actions of foster parents or her biological father.

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The woman details a horrendous childhood in her lawsuit, including time with an allegedly violent foster family.

She claims that the province knew about symptoms of sexual abuse but failed to act.

When she was finally removed from the foster home, the civil suit says she then spent the next 12 years with her biological father, who punched her and pinned her to the floor.

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Court documents claim that the ministry knew about the abuse but failed to remove her from her father’s custody for at least two years.

When the ministry finally did take her away, it failed to give her new foster parents, according to the lawsuit, leaving her homeless for 10 months.

At a different foster home, she allegedly reported problems to the province but was ignored, according to the civil claim.

The woman says she then ran away and gave birth to a child who was taken away from her.

The lawsuit says her baby was put in the care of the foster parents she fled and was only removed from there after her foster father overdosed on injection opioids in a child’s bedroom.

The province says it will be filing a response denying that it was negligent in placing the girl with her biological father or foster parents.

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Five months later, court documents say the girl’s social worker, Robert Riley Saunders, opened a joint chequing account with the girl, depositing funding for her food, clothing and shelter.

He then allegedly transferred the money into his account, using it to pay for his family trips and his mortgage.

The girl had a second child, but Saunders took the baby away, saying she was homeless and lacked the resources to care for her child, according to the civil claim.

The lawsuit says that when the social worker finally closed the account in January 2018, he took the cash for himself.

Jason Gratl, the woman’s lawyer, said she wasn’t the only youth in care that Saunders stole money from.

“It’s become apparent that Robert Riley Saunders has been negligent and sometimes deliberately harmful to children in care for as long as two decades,” Gratl said.

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The lawyer said he’s personally representing more than a dozen cases involving Saunders in a proposed class action.

“The Province of British Columbia is deep into negotiations with a representative plaintiff in the class action,” he said. “We anticipate we’ll be in a position to make a positive announcement in the near future.”

The lawyer said he’s outraged by the facts of the case.

“The notion that a social worker would steal rent cheques from children in care, making them homeless, is abhorrent,” he said.

“And it’s only gotten worse since then. We’ve learned that he forged his academic credentials,” Gratl added. “He appears to have lived a lie and harmed many people.”

Interior Savings Credit Union is also named as a defendant in the woman’s civil case.

Her lawsuit alleges the financial institution breached its own policies and should have known that Saunders was transferring money from the children into his own account and living beyond his means.

“Only a financial institution with its eyes tightly screwed shut would have failed to notice these irregularities,” Gratl said.

In its response to the civil claim, Interior Savings says Saunders made false statements. It also said it didn’t know that he planned to use the account for any reason other than to allow the youth to have access to funding from the ministry and other sources.

Gratl says Saunders’ whereabouts aren’t currently known, but tips from the public are appreciated.

“The question in my mind is, where are the criminal charges? Why is this man not being prosecuted?” he asked.

RCMP have not yet responded to request for comment.

Gratl says he hopes to publicize the proposed terms of settlement to ensure all class members or potential class members are apprised of the proposed terms.

He estimates Saunders took approximately $400,000.

Gratl believes its time for a broad overhaul of the child apprehension foster care system.

“Certainly we know this: that there aren’t enough social workers,” Gratl said. “There aren’t enough foster parents. The system is dramatically under-resourced.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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