The Syilx Okanagan Nation is calling for a full-scale overhaul of the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) in light of the Robert Riley Saunders court case.
The Syilx Okanagan Nation is comprised of seven member Indigenous communities across the B.C. Interior, including Westbank First Nation and the Penticton Indian Band. In a news release sent out Thursday, Oct. 7, the nation said it is extremely disappointed by the plea deal struck by Saunders, a former social worker for the ministry who obtained his job with a fraudulent degree.
Saunders is accused of stealing ministry funds from at-risk youth in his care, many of whom are Indigenous. He pleaded guilty to stealing from and harming at-risk youth in his care, forging a university diploma and breaching trust as a public official in court on Monday, Sept. 27.
“MCFD needs to take accountability for their complete failure in following through with their due diligence in ensuring they were hiring a true certified worker. They must put quality measures in place to ensure that such cases as these do not continue to take place. They need to provide the structures that ensure that there are qualified, quality staff in place,” said the nation’s family governance representative and Penticton Indian Band Chief Greg Gabriel.
The alliance is also frustrated by the province’s lack of action towards Saunders’ case, stating that the ministry has not taken action on recommendations published by the BC Representative for Children and Youth. The ministry has also not clearly stated whether they have contacted all the youth who were harmed by Saunders and whether they have received supports, said the nation.
Syilx Okanagan Nation Alliance wellness manager Jennifer Lewis said the Saunders case adds to a deep-rooted history of injustice and systemic racism that Indigenous people have suffered at the hands of the MCFD and the provincial government as a whole.
“There is a distinct parallel of MCFD’s ongoing willful ignorance of the harms to our people by their system and the ongoing willful ignorance of the government to recognize the truth of Indian Residential Schools and the real actions required for true reconciliation. The systems purporting to serve the “best interests” of our children and families require a full-scale overhaul to transform the horrific outcomes our people experience,” she said.
In response, the MCFD said it is committed to transforming the system and address the overrepresentation of Indigenous children and youth in care. In an email to Black Press Media, the ministry says it is committed to working with the affected youth and their representatives in a way that doesn’t cause further trauma.
The MCFD also said it has taken concrete steps to protect youth and strengthen financial controls. It says it is hiring a professional organization to verify the educational credentials of social workers, and a contract will be finalized this fall. The ministry also said it has made legislative changes to better support families and to keep children and youth connected to their families and communities, including signing agreements to allow individual Nations to exercise their jurisdiction over child and family services.
“We offer our heartfelt apologies to all the young people who have been affected by these unacceptable circumstances,” said the MCFD. “The number of Indigenous children and youth in care in B.C. continues to decline and is now at its lowest point since the year 2000. Even so, there is still an overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care in B.C.”
Saunders is scheduled to be sentenced in March 2022.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a response from the Ministry of Children and Family Development at 3:45 p.m. on Oct. 7.