Jordan: Today’s story is about the settlement of a lawsuit. It’s not exactly sexy stuff. The government agency admits it screwed up and it pays out a few million dollars to those harmed by the screw up. But there’s another story behind this lawsuit and settled. This settlement pays at least $25,000 each to more than 100 young people who were in the British Columbia child welfare system over 17 years. Most of those youth are Indigenous. As part of entering the child welfare service, money was set aside for them to take care of themselves. That money was stolen. All of it, allegedly, by these same social worker over 17 years. And nobody believed the kids. Nobody cared. The end result was dozens of lives, spiralling into poverty, and homelessness, and drug use, or worse. And now, later, those kids get a check. They don’t get criminal charges against the man who they say did this. They don’t get an inquiry into how exactly this could have possibly happened. But they get some money. And the question now is if the people who have the power to figure out what’s really wrong with their system will bother to do that. Or if they’ll just hope that the money takes care of it and pray it doesn’t happen again. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Holly Moore is an investigative producer at APTN, one of the outlets that first delved deep into this story. Hi Holly.
Jordan: Why don’t you start by telling us who is Robert Riley Saunders, who’s at the center of this investigation?
Holly: Robert Riley Saunders was a social worker who was employed by the BC Ministry of Children and Family Development. He was supervised by a woman named Siobhan Stynes, and Robert Riley Saunders was in the Kelowna office of the BC Child welfare system. Essentially, he was, in charge of a number of youth who had been going to him for social work care for some time. The majority of these youth were Indigenous youth. They were all in vulnerable youth. And he– you know, when I speak to his alleged– well, they’re not alleged– his victims of the scheme that he pulled, they say that he was very charismatic, he came off as extremely caring, he seemed to always have their best interests at heart. And certainly, at times he could be abusive to them, either verbally or emotionally abusive. We don’t know a lot about Saunders because shortly after, in the wake of this scandal, because he essentially disappeared. So I had an address for him in Kelowna that was no longer valid and hadn’t been for some time. My last understanding was that he was living in Alberta somewhere. But he really has yet to face any charges for this scheme.
Jordan: So tell me about the scheme. What was going on?
Holly: So the scheme was where youth had joint bank accounts with Saunders. So, you know, they would get their monthly stipends for living, for rent, for their sustenance. And basically he would go in to a bank in Kelowna, and he would open joint bank accounts with them. Their funds would be siphoned off. So they weren’t given bank statements to say where they were in their bank accounts. They had no idea how much they were spending. And then eventually when the scheme unraveled, it was clear that he was siphoning their money off. And he exposed them to homelessness drugs, one case that I knew of had sexual exploitation. Certainly, this had been going on for quite some time. We don’t know exactly how long this went on for, but the one woman that I really, connected with said it had been going on for at least two to three years. So we haven’t been able to get a clear picture of how much money was involved, but it would have been in the millions of dollars.
Jordan: So we’re going to talk today about the system that lets this kind of stuff happen. But first, how is it supposed to work? Cause, I mean, I was surprised to even learn that he had access to joint bank accounts. Why is that in place and how is it designed to help these kids?
Holly: Well, I mean, if you think about vulnerable youth, you have kids who are, you know, 14, 15, 16 years old. Many don’t have access to bank accounts. Many don’t have access to ID, never mind being able to intersect with a system that is not really set up for them, you know? So you have to remember that in Kelowna in particular, and, you know, any child who’s been involved with child welfare, there’s a vulnerability there. And so my understanding is that the joint bank accounts were not regular practice. Now, the thing to keep in mind is that the Ministry of Child and Family Development has said very little on this case. I mean, it’s a huge embarrassment. It’s a huge breach of trust there. There have been allegations against Saunders’s supervisor, Siobhan Stynes, with the understanding that she must have known that this was going on. So it speaks to an incredible lack of oversight of this case load that Saunders and Stynes had been administrating. Now, when you’ve got vulnerable youth, many of them Indigenous, who don’t know how to intersect with the system, it’s a perfect setup for something like this to happen. And really what we were hoping would come out of the story was an overhaul , an investigation into how this could be it happen. And then an explanation to the public on how that happened. What we haven’t gotten is that. We’ve gotten a lot of government officials, including the child advocates office, saying, you know, this is horrible, this is terrible, it will never happen again. But we haven’t yet gotten any kind of review or systematic dismantling of how this went on. We know that the Ministry of Child and Family Development office in Kelowna, that the director was removed. We don’t know why. We know that, you know, as it’s come out in court filings, that the ministry accepts vicarious liability for what happened. So we know that they don’t deny that this happened. But what we really don’t have satisfaction on for victims or the public is how it happened. So that’s really what needs to happen next, is how did you expose these young people, who were in your care to homelessness, drugs, sexual exploitation?
Jordan: Can you give me a couple of their stories, of the actual people who are impacted by this? And sort of what happened to them in their whole experience with the foster system? Cause I presume these kids would have been in care homes with dedicated foster parents, before then moving out and getting access to these funds. Is that right?
Holly: Sort of. I’ll just tell you the story of Aden Withers. So, Aden was 15 when she was taken into foster care. Her mother had essentially given her up to foster care when she was 12 to 13 years old, because she felt like that that system could give her a better life. What happened to Aden was not short of shameful. Aden actually went and reported a sexual assault to the Kelowna detachment of the RCMP while she was in foster care. And during that interrogation, she was asked questions like, “Were you turned on by it at all? It’s very difficult for a man to have sex with a woman who didn’t want to have sex.” So this interrogation goes on for two and a half hours. Aden is 16 at the time, sitting alone in an interrogation room. And two members of the Ministry of Child and Family Development are sitting there to quote unquote “support” her. And the only thing that they do through the whole entire video is offer her a hamburger. So Aden was one of the early, early cases that we became involved in. She was one of the first people to sue the BC ministry. And she, during this lawsuit that she was a part of, she mentioned this experience with the sexual assault and the Kelowna RCMP. Well, of course her lawyer, Michael Patterson, subpoenaed the video. And I obtained the interrogation video showing that this indeed had happened exactly as she said it had. So she was not only traumatized by the system. She was traumatized by the RCMP while she was in the care of the system. She experienced homelessness herself. She experienced verbal and emotional abuse by both Saunders and Stynes. And she had absolutely no money, no support. And then on top of all of that was interrogated by the RCMP for reporting a sex assault. So that’s just one of the cases. Another case was– and these are all available to read because it was a lawsuit. So we were able to access court records. Another case was a young man who I’m not going to say his name, but was driven into doing survival sex and drug taking because he had no money, because Saunders was siphoning money off of him. So the monumental effect of this really requires some explanation. And what we haven’t seen is that explanation. Saunders says never spoken. He’s never criminally charged. And really now this lawsuit has been settled with the BC government. But where’s the explanation? Where’s the accountability?
Jordan: Do we know if at any point red flags were raised? Either by these youth asking where the money went or anybody in that orbit? Because yeah, the scale that you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation of millions of dollars, it’s hard to fathom that one person could get all that out.
Holly: I mean, it was obviously a system that completely did not have any checks and balances. I mean, like I think about it comparably, I work in a bureaucracy, right? I work at APTN. If my gas receipt is off, I get called in, you know? There’s accountability. I assumed there was accountability in government. But this– you know, I’ll tell you something that I’ve never reported. After I reported this first story, I was contacted by a number of former or current employees. And they said to me, keep going. This is the tip of the iceberg. You’re going to find widespread corruption. But I wasn’t ever able to get to how this happened. And you know, that to me says a lot. There needs to be some transparency, and there never has been. The only way that we got access to this video was because the victim had gone to court, so it became public. The only way that we got access to Aden Withers’s story is because she was brave enough to come forward and tell us. You can’t expect people who have been constantly overlooked and exploited by the system to be able to then stand up and be like, okay, this happened to me and I’m going to get some accountability here. There are two very, very good lawyers who are working on this and have represented dozens of clients in the BC courts, Michael Patterson and Jason Gratl, and that is where these kids will get their justice, and their settlement. But what we don’t know is how this happened. The children’s advocate of BC came out very strongly in the beginning to say, you know, we’re going to get to the bottom of this. We’re going to figure out what happened. But I have yet to see any kind of substantial or meaningful review of how this happened.
Jordan: How did the lawsuit come together? Tell me about the settlement. Because we’ve kind of touched on it a little bit and I mentioned it in the intro, but you know, tell me how this came to at least the resolution we’ve gotten so far.
Holly: So my understanding is that this class action lawsuit at first started with a couple of victims. Like, you know, when you looked on the BC court’s registry, you would find two or three victims, three or four individual lawsuits. And then Jason Gratl came out with the class action lawsuit, that is now been settled. And it covers more than a hundred victims of Saunders. The ministry has identified 102 possible victims. 85 of them were Indigenous youth. So it is what we thought, that the majority were Indigenous. But there’s been more than a dozen lawsuits that have really, you know, led up to this agreement. And one of the worst sort of admissions that came out of this is that clients, including Aden Withers, actually accused the ministry of moving them from stable, loving homes, into independent living situations so that he could then access these joint bank accounts. So that was one of the features of this case that just floored me. So it wasn’t just that he had engineered this scheme for the kids who are already in independent living, but that he actually moved them from stable foster homes so that he could exploit them better, right? So the settlement could cost the province as much as $15 million. Each of the clients would get about $25,000. But indigenous clients will receive an extra $44,000 each because of the increased vulnerability. The agreement will also create a process through which the victims who had suffered homelessness, sexual exploitation, physical or sexual abuse can then apply for an additional $181,000 in damage. So the province has admitted that is their fault. And I understand that the settlement was really important. It had to go through. But to my mind, we have to understand how this happened so that we cannot see it happen again. We will not see it happen again. In Aden Withers’s case, she actually filed against the RCMP for emotional harm and damage, and she received an undisclosed settlement from the RCMP and the ministry, so like a joint settlement. I’m not going to say how much that was. But you know, they’ve definitely admitted that this happened and they’re willing to pay reparations for it.
Jordan: You mentioned that there has not yet, and may not be, an official inquiry to get to the bottom of this, but has there been any policy change to perhaps oversee this money better? Or at least put some checks and balances in there?
Holly: You know, not that I’ve seen. I’ve heard lots and lots of promises about how they have to do better, that this is a horrible thing that had happened. But I think that until they really understand how this happened, there’s no guarantee that it’s not going to happen in another jurisdiction of the child welfare system. We do note that the court documents in the settlement included a letter that had been written in 2004 by the ministry’s Aboriginal Community Services Manager for the Okanagan region that indicated Saunders himself was in a conflict of interest at the time for withholding a client’s money. So this is going back to 2004. In that letter he’s warned he could be fired for further breaches. So, I mean, that’s a dozen years. If one social worker could do something like this, then what’s to say another one wouldn’t? And again, there’s been no criminal charges announced. We know that the RCMP handed in their findings to the BC prosecution service in April, 2020, but we’ve had absolutely no timeline on when those charges would be laid.
Jordan: This is a story about Kelowna and the actions supposedly of one man. But, you know, one of the points that you’ve made in some of your reporting is that, you know, it speaks to the way the system is set up for vulnerable people. Can you kind of elaborate on that and tell us what this investigation has shown you about the system as a whole?
Holly: So I mean, APTN does a lot of reporting on child welfare. We know that the system is biased against Indigenous youth. We know that indigenous children are being harmed in the system. You know, given the fact that the settlement includes a bonus or a premium for being Indigenous speaks to the fact that it is an unequal application of the system when it pertains to Indigenous children and their families. The system is not equipped to deal with Indigenous cultural childbearing or child rearing activities. So when we look at how much judgment is involved in the system, it’s quite alarming. So I was working on a story in Saskatoon recently, where a family said, you know, we did all the things we jumped through all the hoops and we still can’t get our kid back. We don’t understand. You know, my belief, as a journalist, in the work that I’ve done is that the system is stacked against Indigenous families. And through the work of, you know, Cindy Blackstock, that’s not a new revelation. What’s so egregious about this case is that I’m trying to imagine if 85 non-Indigenous children were taken in a similar scheme, that we would still be here three years later with no criminal charges. So there’s a part of me that believes that the systems of justice, of child welfare, they’re really not there for Indigenous people. And I think that this case really became clear to me that the amount of damage that can be done is profound. And the amount of damage that can be done to Indigenous communities by the constant apprehension of children, by the misunderstanding of Indigenous child-rearing, by the incredible incentives that exist for getting kids in care, I think we really need to, as Canada, look at that as an issue, a decision that we have to make, if this is what we want to be represented as. And so when I looked at this case, when I saw this story in the Vancouver Sun, who actually broke the story, I just had almost like a visceral reaction. Like I stood up from my desk and I threw– like I had printed the article out and I like threw my hands up in the air, and I actually said, WTF. How is this possible? You know, and a very wise Indigenous journalist colleague looked at me and said, well, of course it happened. And I thought, this is not okay. This is not okay that we can have this incredibly manipulative, selfish, “social worker,” quote, unquote, who’s doing that dozens, at the time, Indigenous youth. How are we okay with this? And that’s what really spurred me on to want to do the investigation, to do the broken trust story with Cullen Crozier, because I thought this can’t just be a news story. It has to be– there’s something else going on here. And I think that really what it relaid to me is the level of racism that it must’ve taken Saunders to think to himself, “Who’s going to care? Really who’s going to care?” And that sort of apathy, like just, I couldn’t just stop and be like, Oh, okay, well, it was just one social worker, one problem. This isn’t one social worker, one problem. This is a system that is stacked against Indigenous people in this country. And that’s wrong.
Jordan: Thanks Holly, for taking us through some of your work and some of the larger problems. I appreciate it.
Holly: Yeah, no problem. Thank you,
Jordan: Holly Moore, investigative producer at APTN. And that was The Big Story. If you want more, we’re at thebigstorypodcast.ca, we have more than 500 episodes by now, so you’ve got to find at least one that you like. You can also talk to us. We love email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Please don’t email me about the QAnon story yesterday, cause I got enough email. You can also find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. You can find us in your favourite podcast player, it’s Apple, it’s Google, it’s Stitcher, it’s Spotify, it’s something else, we’ll be there too. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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