Ministry responds to allegations that social worker stole from kids in government care

The Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) says a Kelowna social worker accused of stealing money from teens in government care is no longer a public employee.

The ministry says it has also implemented new internal financial controls aimed at ensuring money is not misappropriated.

According to a civil lawsuit filed in the Okanagan city, Robert Riley Saunders is alleged to have opened a joint bank account with a First Nations teen in his care in early 2016, allegedly taking government funds meant for the youth to use for his own purposes.

The teen eventually ended up in a transient and sometimes homeless living situation.

The suit further claims that Saunders engaged in similar activities with respect to dozens of other minors in his care, many of them Indigenous.

The suit names the MCFD, the director of child welfare and the financial institution where the account was opened, and a proposed class-action lawsuit has also been launched in a Vancouver court.

On Wednesday, Katrine Conroy, the minister responsible, deferred questions on the matter, citing a publication ban in the case.

On Friday, the MCFD said the ban had been lifted and that it could now say that the “individual in question” no longer works for the public service.

The ministry laid out a timeline of its response, acknowledging it became aware of and referred financial irregularities to the Office of the Comptroller General (OCG) in December 2017, saying “steps were taken” the following January to ensure the well-being of youth who may have been affected.

It says the Office of the Provincial Director of Child Welfare launched a special review in the wake of the incident, that the Public Guardian and Trustee was notified in March and that reports for all affected children have been shared with the province’s Representative for Children and Youth (RCY).

The ministry further said the OCG launched an investigation in January to determine if there was evidence of fraud and hired a financial consulting firm to review internal financial controls.

A key recommendation of that probe was the implementation of a new system that would prevent a single staff member from initiating and printing cheques, the ministry said.

The ministry says a second review is being launched into how it handles contracting and payments, along with a strategy to cut down on the use of cheques entirely.

The ministry says that with the publication ban lifted, it is now also able to share more information on the issue with the RCY, the Ombudsperson, the Public Guardian and Trustee and the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Global News has requested comment from the Representative for Children and Youth.

Saunders could not be reached for comment.

Saunders and the other parties named in the suit have three weeks to respond to the notice of civil claim.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

—With files from Kimberly Davidson

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