Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

CFS workers will be vilified if named at inquiry: union

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SOCIAL workers who have their identities publicized during the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair could become the targets of venomous online commentary, a lawyer argued Wednesday.

Garth Smorang, who represents the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, said putting people's names and faces on the Internet would create global exposure and a permanent record.

The union represents social workers involved with Phoenix before the five-year-old was slain in 2005. Her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl McKay, were convicted of first-degree murder in 2008.

The MGEU is pushing for a publication ban preventing the media from naming or taking pictures or video of any of the social workers who dealt with Phoenix.

"Gone are the days when you're only infamous until garbage day, because on garbage day, the papers get thrown out," Smorang told the inquiry, headed by retired judge Ted Hughes.

"Now, when you're infamous, you're infamous in perpetuity."

While still under the supervision of Child and Family Services, Phoenix was frequently confined, shot with a BB gun, forced to eat her own vomit, in addition to being neglected. She died after an assault in the basement of the family home on the Fisher River reserve.

A few months before her death, a social worker went to check on Sinclair and was told she was asleep. He saw a sibling playing outside who appeared healthy. He decided that was enough.

Sinclair's death went undetected for nine months and Kematch and McKay continued to claim benefits in her name. Eventually, a relative called police. The girl's body was found in a shallow grave.

Smorang said websites where anonymous commenters can post remarks can mean permanent damage for those involved.

Such identification means "those social workers will become game for the bloody-minded," he said, adding the media appear "to no longer be particularly interested in the accuracy or the truth or the facts."

"It is primarily interested, in my respectful submission, in the sensationalization of stories and the laying of blame," he said.

Regional child welfare authorities are also asking for the publication ban. Their lawyer, Kris Saxberg, pointed out media members are not allowed under provincial law to identify parties or witnesses in court cases involving child welfare. That includes parents, foster parents and others. He suggested the principle should be extended to the public inquiry.

But Hughes questioned the idea.

"Remember, this is a public hearing. Maybe you don't think it is," the commissioner said.

Hughes asked Smorang whether a publication ban is the only option.

"Are there not other measures their employer could take to reduce the risk to workers -- that is, remove them from the front line on a temporary basis or to provide counselling to them to cope with the stress and morale issues that arise?" Hughes asked.

The hearing into the publication ban continues today and lawyers representing Phoenix's foster mother, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the media, including the Winnipeg Free Press, will argue against the publication ban request.

Hughes is scheduled to give his decision July 12.

The inquiry is slated to begin in September.

The union that represents social workers has fought to limit the inquiry. Earlier this year, it tried to have the death examined by a provincial court inquest, which is limited in scope and lacks the power to subpoena witnesses. The Manitoba Court of Appeal rejected that argument.

 

-- with files from The Canadian Press

gabrielle.giroday@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2012 A4

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