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Ian Mulgrew: Victims of children’s ministry scandal step forward

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“These individual lawsuits are necessary to hold to account the senior civil servants who were aware of the high risks to Aboriginal children in care in Kelowna.”

Vancouver lawyer Jason Gratl. Gerry Kahrmann / PNG

The civil cases are piling up like cordwood against the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development over an Okanagan social worker’s misconduct.

In a scandal that could involve as many as 90 vulnerable youths and hundreds of thousands of dollars, four new suits were filed alleging the ministry was aware of previous misconduct by Robert Riley Saunders, that his supervisors failed to detect his misdeeds in a timely fashion, and that the ministry maintained inadequate safeguards.

The actions follow class-action litigation filed in B.C. Supreme Court in November by the Public Guardian and Trustee who claimed that Saunders manipulated numerous teenagers in care, mostly Aboriginal youth, into an “independent living” program only to pocket their benefits and abandon them.

The public trustee said that without protections in place to prevent Sauders’ misappropriation of funds, the young people were left without support — homeless and prey to predators.

In its legal response filed in December, the government admitted Saunders was “negligent, defalcated and converted the plaintiff’s funds, committed misfeasance in public office, fraud and breached fiduciary duties owed to the plaintiff and further admits the plaintiff suffered harm as a result.”

The ministry said at the time, and reiterated on Thursday, that since the allegations came to light it had offered support, including counselling, to the youth.

It said then, too, that it would work with their lawyers to “address these matters in a manner that does not cause further trauma to the affected individuals.”

The government agreed the court should award damages with interest.

Saunders admitted the conversion of funds in March 2018, the ministry said, a forensic auditor confirmed he had committed fraud, he was fired and the RCMP notified.

Once the misconduct was detected in 2017, however, the new lawsuits say the ministry failed for a period of eight months “to move expeditiously to review and restrain him, which exacerbated and prolonged the harms caused by Saunders.”

Vancouver lawyer Jason Gratl said the ministry and its employees, particularly Saunders, must be held accountable given the suffering and abuse.

“Aside from these four cases and the previously filed suit, I expect to file nine additional individual lawsuits,” he said. “These individual lawsuits are necessary to hold to account the senior civil servants who were aware of the high risks to Aboriginal children in care in Kelowna.”

The court documents state: “Saunders engaged in the same and similar unlawful and inexcusable activities in respect of dozens of other children in his care, most of whom are Aboriginal children.”

He had complete control over every aspect of their life, including where they lived, their access to family, their access to services and financial assistance, and even their connection to cultural heritage, the documents stated.

Saunders was the youths’ primary source of parental stability and security but he abandoned them, abused them and stole their money and benefits.

Aside from Saunders, the director of child welfare, Siobhon Stynes (his supervisor), other unknown managers and the Interior Savings Credit Union are the main defendants.

The first of the new filings was by a young First Nations man, J.S. (whose identity is being withheld because the events occurred when he was underage), in care from 10 to 19. Like the others, he was vulnerable, dragged up rather than reared, a product of neglect, homelessness and trauma.

Saunders is alleged to have removed the 17-year-old from his foster parent and put J.S. into an independent living arrangement in Kelowna.

A few months later, the teen was reputedly sent to Ontario for 10 days to visit his estranged father, an unsuitable parent.

When the boy begged to come back, the suit claimed Saunders stranded him and, as a result, J.S. was rendered transient and exploited.

In the second case, M.I., a First Nations woman born in 1994 and placed in care at seven, accused her foster parents from aged 7 to 13 of “verbally, psychologically and physically” abusing her and her sisters. She claimed the foster father repeatedly sexually molested her.

At 13, M.I. was assigned to Saunders, according to the suit, and he allegedly misappropriated funds from her.

In the third case, S.W., a young Metis man, in care from six to 19, alleged that when he was about 17, Saunders moved him into an independent living arrangement and then misappropriated benefits and other resources.

The teenager claimed, “Saunders viciously berated and insulted (him), refused to take (his) calls and failed to return his messages.”

S.W. was rendered destitute and in such “deep despair … (he) turned to hard drugs for solace … quickly spiralled out of control and was involuntarily committed to a mental health ward.”

According to the statement of claim, that precipitated a descent into a “decade long nadir involving acute substance use disorder, psychological and psychiatric instability and involvement in the criminal justice system and mental health system.”

In the fourth case, a First Nations teen who came into care in 2014, J.Y., said that in mid-2016, when she was 16, she asked Saunders to move her into independent care.

“After Saunders withheld stable housing and subsistence funding from (J.Y.), (she) was rendered homeless and transient … exploited, further traumatized, exposed to street drugs, developed substance use disorder and her education and employment prospects were undermined and delayed.”

Interior Savings, a Kamloops-based financial institution, was blamed in the suits for allowing Saunders to open accounts with children.

“Interior Savings breached its own policies dealing with joint accounts, children’s accounts, and joint accounts with children,” the claims said.

None of the allegations have been proven in court and the defendants have at least three weeks to respond to the latest suits.

imulgrew@postmedia.com

twitter.com/ianmulgrew


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