Indigenous children’s advocates rallied Thursday on the steps of a courthouse in Kelowna, British Columbia, pleading for 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 supposed to care for.
Saunders embezzled over $460,000 from the government and adopted children, who were mostly First Nations.
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From the statements of the victims, the court heard heartbreaking stories about the empty promises that Saunders made to the youth under his care.
Some former youths in care said that Saunders began by treating them with kindness and compassion, but that soon turned into neglect and bullying.
The court heard that because Saunders himself lived a luxurious lifestyle, he was depriving his victims of their youth.
Unbeknownst to the teenagers, Saunders opened joint bank accounts and then cashed checks in their name, stealing money that was supposed to help them live a better life.
Victims say they will always wonder what their lives could have been like had they been given the support they needed and deserved.
“I was bullied by my own social worker,” one of the victims told the court in a written statement.
They also said that their trust in the system that was supposed to protect them had been eroded.
Meanwhile, social workers who took on the teens’ cases after Saunders’ fraud was uncovered told the court about their struggle to help the youth, whom they describe as wonderful, beautiful souls, as they tried to right Saunders’ mistakes.
They also talked about how Saunders’ crimes had a negative impact on the social worker profession in the community as trust was lost.
“Now we are being painted with the same brush as him,” the social worker told the judge, adding that this had an impact on relationships with their clients.
As people wiped away tears in the gallery, Saunders sometimes seemed to be dozing in the prison cell.
Jennifer Lewis, health manager for the Olx Praca National Alliance, said she used to work with Saunders.
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“I am very outraged by this,” she said. “I remember working with Saunders many years ago when he was doing all this and hearing some of the victim impact claims and his own reaction to them is really deeply disturbing.”
“His arrogance and his aggression when these crimes were committed were very real and felt by everyone,” she added.
She said she believes his attitude went unpunished, allowing him to get away with cheating.
“It’s the same everywhere with indigenous peoples. They just ignore all our concerns all the time, and then serious harm happens.”
“I want people to know that this is not an isolated incident. This is a system incident. It’s based on superiority and racism, and it’s been allowed,” Lewis said.
Saunders had previously pleaded guilty to over $5,000 in fraud, breach of trust, and use of a forged document.
During a previous hearing, Saunders took the stand, arguing that he stole from the government, not youth in care, as the teenagers were not eligible for rental funds because they were mostly in foster care.
“I have never harmed young people,” testifies a swindler from British Columbia.
Crown prosecutor Heather Magnin is demanding that Saunders spend six to eight years in prison. She claimed that Saunders’ fraud increased over time and noted that at one point he was earning three times his ministerial salary.
“The reality that Mr. Saunders chose to attack Indigenous children in care cannot be separated from the crime of Mr. Saunders,” Magnin said. “This is an important factor in demonstrating the overall severity of these events.”
According to the Crown, Saunders was an adventurer, making the most out of every young man’s name.
The defense is expected to present its arguments on Friday.
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