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McKay's niece tried to blow whistle on abuse; CFS wouldn't take anonymous tip

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Karl McKay's niece said she called Winnipeg CFS to report that his stepdaughter Phoenix Sinclair was being locked in a bedroom and abused but the agency wouldn't accept an anonymous call from a minor, the woman testified today.

Lisa Marie Bruce told the inquiry into the death of the little girl that she was 17 at the time and lived in the same apartment block as McKay, Phoenix and Phoenix’s mother, Samantha Kematch.

Bruce babysat Phoenix several times and said she saw changes in the little girl and how she was treated after Kematch and McKay had a baby together in late 2004.

"She became more quieter, more distant," Bruce told the inquiry ordered by the province to find out how the little girl fell through Manitoba's child-welfare safety net. Phoenix's 2005 death at the hands of McKay and Kematch wasn’t discovered until March 2006.

Bruce said Phoenix didn't cry or show much emotion after Kematch and McKay's baby was born. The once talkative and outgoing child didn't seem happy or well, said Bruce.

"She started to look ill -- as if she was low on iron," said Bruce "She was getting skinnier."

Her mom and stepdad didn't want four-year-old Phoenix around their baby -- or anyone, Bruce said, recalling Kematch getting rough with four-year-old Phoenix.

"Phoenix was going around the baby. She grabbed Phoenix and pushed her towards the ground and called her a little slut."

She saw McKay lashing out at Phoenix, too.

"He became more stern, more violent toward her," she said. She saw Phoenix with a black eye and bruises on her face on two occasions but was told they were the result of a fall. Bruce, who'd seen McKay be mean to Phoenix, said she believed the bruises were the result of abuse.

"When we were sitting down for dinner in his apartment, (Phoenix) was sitting there, eating. Out of nowhere, he grabbed her hat off her head and threw it on the ground. He'd grabbed her hair at same time."

In January 2005, Bruce noticed a lock with a chain on the outside of the bedroom door in their one-bedroom apartment. There was no sign of Phoenix, who may have been shut away in the bedroom, she said.

One time, when she went to pick Phoenix up and take her to Brownies at the Indian and Metis Friendship Centre, there was no sign of Phoenix outside the locked bedroom. Kematch and McKay said Phoenix couldn't go with her, Bruce said.

"They said she was being bad."

She said she was worried about Phoenix and called Winnipeg CFS two weeks later, in May 2005. By then, the little girl and her family had moved to Fisher River First Nation.

Winnipeg CFS had already closed the file on Phoenix in March 2005 after social workers responded to an earlier report by a friend of Kematch that Phoenix was being locked in a bedroom. They didn't get inside the suite or see Phoenix but they talked to Kematch in the hallway as she held her and McKay's baby. They told her a locked bedroom door isn't safe and left satisfied there wasn't a child in need of protection. Winnipeg CFS closed the file on Phoenix.

Bruce said she called CFS in May 2005 but was stopped short by whomever at CFS took her call.

"I didn't want to release my information," she said. "When I told them how old I was they said I would need a parent or guardian to do the report to CFS." Bruce said OK and hung up, not knowing what else to do, she said. She didn't tell anyone at the time about the call she made on a landline to CFS.

She didn't get a chance to provide the full names of McKay, Kematch or Phoenix, who each had a lengthy CFS file.

Her call to CFS was news to the inquiry. Commission counsel called for a recess to tell Bruce that as a source of referral, she was entitled to legal representation and to keep her name out of the public eye. Bruce, now an adult, said she wanted to continue without a lawyer. Her testimony continues this afternoon.

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