On Thursday, Indigenous child advocates gathered on the steps of the courthouse in Kelowna, British Columbia, to demand justice for the victims of a former Kelowna social worker.
Inside, the court heard how the actions of Robert Riley Saunders forever changed the future of the children he was meant to care for.
Saunders embezzled more than $460,000 from government and foster children, who were mostly Indigenous.
White-collar crime: How did a BC social worker embezzle $460,000 from the government?
Through victim impact statements, the court heard heartbreaking stories about the hollow promises Saunders made to the young people in his care.
Some former youth in care said Saunders started out treating them with kindness and compassion, but it quickly turned into neglect and bullying.
The court heard that Saunders himself led a lavish life, he robbed his victims of their youth.
Little did the teens know that Saunders opened joint bank accounts and then cashed checks in their names, stealing money meant to help them live a better life.
Victims said they will always wonder what their lives might have been like had they received the support they needed and deserved.
“I was bullied by my own social worker,” one victim told the court through a written statement.
They also said that the trust they had in the system that was supposed to protect them has been destroyed.
Meanwhile, social workers who took on the teens’ cases after Saunders’ fraud was discovered told the court of their struggles to help young people, whom they call wonderful, beautiful souls, as they tried to right Saunders’ wrongs.
They also talked about how Saunders’ crimes had a negative impact on the profession of social work in the community, as trust was lost.
“We are now painted with the same brush as him,” a social worker told the judge, adding that it had impacted relationships with their clients.
As people wiped away their tears in the gallery, Saunders sometimes appeared to doze off in the prisoner’s box.
Jennifer Lewis, wellness manager for the Okanagan Nation Alliance, said she used to work with Saunders.
Former BC social worker charged with defrauding teens in care pleads guilty
“I’m extremely angry about this,” she said. “I remember working with Saunders years ago when he was doing all of this, and hearing some of the victim statements and his own reactions to them is really deeply disturbing.”
“His arrogance and aggression at the time these crimes were committed was very real and felt by everyone,” she added.
She said she believed her attitude had gone unchecked, which allowed her to get away with the fraud.
“It’s the same everywhere with aboriginal people. They just dismiss all our concerns all the time, and then serious damage occurs. »
“I want people to know that this is not an isolated incident. It is a systemic incident. It’s based on supremacy and racism, and it was allowed,” Lewis said.
Saunders previously pleaded guilty to fraud over $5,000, breach of trust and using a false document.
At an earlier hearing, Saunders spoke out, saying he robbed the government, not the young people in care, because the teenagers would not have been eligible for rent funds as they were mostly in foster homes.
“At no time did I put a young person in danger”, testifies a social work fraud from British Columbia
Crown prosecutor Heather Magnin is asking that Saunders spend six to eight years in prison. She argued that Saunders’ fraud escalated over time and noted that at one point he was bringing in triple his salary to the department.
“The reality that Mr. Saunders chose to target Indigenous children in care cannot be divorced from Mr. Saunders’ crime,” Magnin said. “This is an important factor demonstrating the overall seriousness of these events.”
Saunders was opportunistic in extracting the maximum amount of funds on behalf of each youngster, the Crown argued.
The defense is expected to present its case on Friday.
© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.