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Ian Mulgrew: B.C. children’s representative, First Nations kept in dark about teens at risk

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Robert Riley Saunders is accused of manipulating youths into an “independent living” program only to pocket their benefits and abandon them.

Cheryl Casimer (right), a First Nations Summit executive on the vanguard of child-welfare issues, was steaming mad at the Ministry of Children and Family Development for not telling Aboriginal leaders about the situation. Kim Stallknecht / Vancouver Sun

B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth and the First Nations community have been kept in the dark about a government social worker accused of defrauding possibly dozens of youths out of benefits and leaving them homeless and vulnerable.

Despite her legislative mandate, Jennifer Charlesworth said she still does not know the scope of the alleged misconduct, how many young people in government care may be involved, or their current circumstances even though initial concerns apparently arose last year.

Cheryl Casimer, a First Nations Summit executive on the vanguard of child-welfare issues, was steaming mad at the Ministry of Children and Family Development for not telling Aboriginal leaders about the situation.

“I’m fuming that, number one, we find out through the media,” she complained.

“Number two … the children who have been affected, my heart absolutely bleeds for them and feels for them. They were already in a vulnerable situation and then to be subjected to this kind of behaviour and betrayal of trust and everything that goes along with it is just heartbreaking. I just don’t have any words.”

Charlesworth said the file has been on her desk since she assumed her position on Aug. 31 and her staff had been trying for months before she arrived to determine what happened and how many teens may have been affected.

They were stymied, she maintained, by a sealing order and publication ban obtained earlier this year by the government to protect the continuing litigation and an RCMP criminal investigation.

In a class-action lawsuit filed in B.C. Supreme Court on Tuesday, the Public Guardian and Trustee claimed social worker Robert Riley Saunders manipulated the youths into an “independent living” program only to pocket their benefits and abandon them.

And the director of child welfare was accused of not adequately supervising Saunders and failing to have protections in place to restrain, control, detect and prevent his misappropriation of funds and benefits.

“The ministry has received legal advice to not share information with us,” Charlesworth explained. “So we have been unable to get the basic questions that one would reasonably expect to be answered — like the scope, the number of youth impacted, how did this happen? All those kind of questions.”

Charlesworth added her staff had opened 14 files on youths who say their funds were misappropriated.

“I met with the minister, I met with the senior management (and) tried to gather some information,” she said. “Of course, they are fettered as well and can’t give us details of the cases other than to say, they are on it, they are aware of it, they’ve allocated resources to try and answer the same questions as we have.”

She said that her office was working with the Public Guardian to have the blackout lifted.

“It’s really disappointing to know that this was going on for some time and it wasn’t ever raised as even a heads-up or … even through our bilateral discussions with the province,” Casimer said.

“It’s just totally unacceptable.”

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Penticton lawyer Michael Patterson of Bridge Law Corp., who represents one of the youth, accused the government of a cover-up.

“This is not something that happened yesterday,” he pointed out. “This is from last year. We just heard about it. The lawyers are just catching up to it. But this has been going on since last year. They put a sealing order on it and a publication ban so nobody knew they went to court to protect themselves. They are not doing this to protect the children.”

Patterson said his client who had “aged out” of the government foster care system when he turned 19 was “trying to get his life together.”

“He’s going to school, but he has an enormous amount of traumatic situations, a lot has happened to him — depression, ADHD, he has severe anxiety, he’s afraid of being exposed, he has suicide ideation. The kid needs help.”

Charlesworth could not explain why the government was preventing her from doing her job.

“Honestly, we’re … ‘concerned’ is too light of a word,” she said. “We have a pretty significant piece of legislation that supports our office, but the legal advice by the attorney-general’s ministry to the ministry of children and families made it very difficult for them to share any information with us.

“My hope is that the publication ban and sealing order will be lifted and then we can begin to gather the information that’s necessary in order for us to understand how many kids, what the nature of the harm that might have been done — again, these are allegations — but we need to get the information.”

Still, there remains no court date.

Casimer said First Nations would be demanding answers.

Vancouver lawyer Jason Gratl, acting for the public guardian, said they had so far identified about 24 youths who may be victims, but that number could be as high as 90, most believed to be First Nations.

He added that sums of between $30,000 and $40,000 were involved in each case, although Patterson said his client had $47,000 stolen.

The lawyers said more potential victims are being identified.

“There are other grave, grave situations coming,” Patterson predicted. “We are going to be seeing a client shortly who was on the street, who was sexually exploited, all because of lack of care.”

In seeking unspecified damages, the class-action claimed Saunders was liable for “negligence, defalcation, misfeasance of public office, abuse of process, conversion, breach of fiduciary duty and fraud.”

It accused the ministry of being vicariously liable for breaching its fiduciary duties by ignoring “warning signs that Saunders was harming youth in his care.”

Interior Savings Financial Services Ltd., a Kamloops-based firm, is also a defendant for alleged negligence and breach of contract for failing to implement adequate safeguards regarding joint bank accounts.

The ministry and the financial company have declined to answer questions because of the legal proceedings and Saunders did not respond to telephone and email requests for comment.

None of the allegations have been proven in court and the defendants have at least three weeks to file a response.

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