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Care gaps emerged early for Phoenix

Precarious situation soon appeared: worker

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BY the time she was nearly four, the ease with which little Phoenix Sinclair could fall through the cracks was alarming.

On Monday, the inquiry into her short, troubled life heard from a crisis-response-unit worker how big those cracks were in terms of her guardianship.

She was supposed to be living with her natural father, Steve Sinclair, even though he already had told CFS he wasn't ready to parent or deal with his substance addictions.

Instead, a tipster to CFS revealed, Phoenix was briefly living with her birth mother, Samatha Kematch. The situation was not safe, the caller said, because Kematch would go drinking and leave Phoenix with her grandmother, who smoked crack in the girl's presence.

In between, she stayed with Kim Edwards and Rohan Stephenson -- a couple identified as her godparents and whose home CFS had approved as a "place of safety" the last time Phoenix was taken into care in June 2003.

Barb Klos's testimony Monday illustrated the difficulties in tracking Phoenix down when the tipster made the call in January 2004.

When Klos went to investigate, she learned Sinclair had been Phoenix's primary caregiver since Kematch left him in June 2001. He was also caring for a second baby, Echo, who died in July 2001 from a severe respiratory infection.

But Klos found out Kematch took Phoenix because Sinclair's sister called to report he had left his daughter home alone.

Klos passed the file and information on Phoenix's possible whereabouts to the intake unit and the case was assigned to social worker Lisa Conlin on Jan. 20, 2004. She and a co-worker went to the "place of safety" home on Selkirk Avenue the next day.

They found Phoenix there with Stephenson, who no longer lived in the home but stayed occasionally. Edwards wasn't home, Conlin said.

The files show the intake worker made no observation about Phoenix -- just three months shy of her fourth birthday -- other than that she was there.

"You weren't talking with her or playing with her?" commission counsel Sherri Walsh asked Conlin on Monday.

"Nothing concerned me about her appearance," said Conlin, who no longer works in child welfare and can't recall details of the case.

She was more interested in who was caring for Phoenix and how they were coping. Stephenson said he and Edwards were happy to care for Phoenix and didn't care about getting any money from CFS for it, Conlin said, referring to information from the file.

Since the home was deemed a place of safety, Conlin took Stephenson at his word. He told her Sinclair was welcome to visit Phoenix but he didn't know where he was or what he was doing.

Conlin and her colleague went to Sinclair's Magnus Avenue address. There were holes in the walls and the ceiling light fixtures had been yanked out, her notes said. She left notes for him and contacted his welfare worker. He called her back on Feb. 5, 2004, to say he was happy with Phoenix remaining with Edwards.

That left Phoenix in guardianship limbo, though.

"At any point, either parent could come and pick Phoenix up?" Walsh asked Conlin.

"Legally, yes," she said.

"In that case, neither Rohan (Stephenson) or Kim (Edwards) would have any legal authority to prevent them from doing that," Walsh noted.

Conlin closed the file in February, with the approval of her supervisor, Doug Ingram.

In 2005, Kematch and her partner, Karl McKay, killed Phoenix. Her death wasn't noticed for months. They were later convicted of first-degree murder.

Conlin's testimony continues today.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2012 A3

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