Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

CFS in dark or could have saved tot: official

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Phoenix Sinclair could have been in a safe place when she was just a toddler had Winnipeg Child and Family Services known she was spending most of her time with unchecked caregivers, not her father.

"She probably would have been brought into care if we'd known that at the time," CFS supervisor Lorna Hanson said Thursday at the inquiry into the death of the five-year-old, murdered by her mother in 2005.

The agency didn't know because the social worker assigned to the case had little contact with the family and made no attempts to contact the list of caregivers -- whose names, addresses and phone numbers were on file, the inquiry heard.

The inquiry is in its fourth week of public hearings. The province ordered it in 2011 to see if and how the child-welfare system failed Phoenix and her family.

Hanson was the CFS supervisor in charge of Delores Chief-Abigosis, the social worker who had the file on Phoenix from November 2000 until she resigned in late July 2001.

Hanson was away from her supervisor's job from June 2000 to June 2001 on medical and maternity leave. When she returned, she expected social workers were doing their jobs, maintaining contact with clients and making sure children were in a safe place, she said.

In Phoenix's case, that didn't happen.

"There is nothing to indicate what, if any, checks were done," Hanson said.

For the entire time Chief-Abigosis had the file, the social worker saw the family twice. She didn't check with people who knew them to see if the troubled young family was OK.

It wasn't. The social worker was oblivious to the family's upheaval until incidents were reported to her unit. Phoenix's parents, Samantha Kematch and Steve Sinclair, had a second baby, Echo, on April 29. Kematch left Sinclair and the children, police had been called to the home about domestic violence and concerns had been raised about Sinclair's drinking.

On July 15, 2001, Echo died of an acute respiratory infection. There was a custody dispute brewing over 15-month-old Phoenix following an ugly incident at a funeral home. There was some blood and bruising on Echo's body resulting from the autopsy Kematch accused Sinclair of causing. Police were called because of fears of violence. The chief medical examiner was contacted and explained the marks and blood weren't due to abuse but to the post-mortem, Hanson said.

Commission counsel Derek Olson asked if CFS had any plan for Phoenix and her dad after the death.

Hanson said Chief-Abigosis's notes said she would visit the family weekly -- an unrealistic plan, given all the demands on a CFS worker's time, she noted.

Hanson was right. For months, no one saw Sinclair with Phoenix. The file was unofficially closed that October. Hanson stood by the decision to close it.

It was not a high-risk situation, she said. Even though a toddler was involved, there was a concern Kematch -- the less stable of the two parents -- would try to take Phoenix, and there was the unresolved issue of Sinclair's drinking. Just because he'd battled booze in the past didn't mean he could never be a parent, Hanson said.

"There was no indication Steve was making bad decisions," she said. "... There seemed to be appropriate supports in place."

CFS officially closed the file in March 2002.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 30, 2012 A5

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