Advocates for Indigenous children gathered on the Kelowna, B.C., courthouse steps on Thursday, begging for justice for the victims of a former Kelowna social worker.
Inside, court heard how the actions of Robert Riley Saunders forever changed the futures of the children that he was supposed to care for.
Saunders embezzled more than $460,000 from the government and foster children, who were mostly Indigenous.
Through victim impact statements, court heard heartbreaking stories of the empty promises Saunders made to youth in his care.
Some former youth in care said Saunders started out by treating them with kindness and compassion but that it soon turned to neglect and bullying.
Court heard that as Saunders himself lived a lavish lifestyle, he robbed his victims of their youth.
The teens did not know that Saunders was opening joint bank accounts and then cashing cheques in their name, stealing money that was meant to help them live a better life.
Victims said they will always wonder what their lives might have been like had they been given the support they needed and deserved.
“I was bullied by my own social worker,” one victim told court through a written statement.
They also said 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 court of their struggles in helping the youth, whom they call wonderful, beautiful souls, as they tried to right Saunders’ wrongs.
They also talked of how Saunders’ crimes have negatively impacted the social worker profession in the community as trust has been lost.
“We now get painted with the same brush as him,” a social worker told the judge, adding that it has impacted relationships with their clients.
As people wiped away tears in the gallery, Saunders at times 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.
“I am intensely angry about it,” she said. “I remember working with Saunders years ago while he was doing all of this, and hearing some of the victim impact statements and his own reactions to those is really deeply disturbing.”
“His arrogance and his aggression back when those crimes were being committed were very real and felt by everybody,” she added.
She said she believes his attitude was left unchecked, which enabled him to get away with the fraud.
“It’s the same thing everywhere with Indigenous people. They just dismiss all of our concerns all the time and then serious harm happens.”
“I want people to know that this is not an isolated incident. It’s a systemic incident. It’s based off of supremacy and racism, and it was allowed,” Lewis said.
Saunders previously pleaded guilty to fraud over $5,000, breach of trust and using a forged document.
During a previous hearing, Saunders took the stand, arguing he stole from the government, not youth in care as the teens wouldn’t have been entitled to the funds meant for rent because they were mostly in foster homes.
Crown prosecutor Heather Magnin is asking for Saunders to spend six to eight years in prison. She argued that Saunders’ fraud scaled up over time, and noted that at one point he was bringing in triple his ministry salary.
“The reality that Mr. Saunders chose to target Indigenous children in care cannot be divorced from Mr. Saunders crime,” Magnin said. “It is an important factor demonstrating the overall seriousness of these events.”
Saunders was opportunistic in extracting the maximum funds in each youth’s name, the Crown argued.
The defence is expected to make its arguments on Friday.
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