Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dogged work led to 'walk of shame'

Staffer tried to check on Phoenix, believed another would follow up

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After tracking down Phoenix Sinclair's home without an address and going there twice to see if she was being abused, Richard Buchkowski's legwork was rewarded with the "walk of shame."

The inquiry into the death of the little girl Monday heard from a Winnipeg crisis-response-unit worker who responded to a March 2005 phone tip that Phoenix's mother may be abusing her and locking her in a bedroom.

Phoenix was murdered by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl "Wes" McKay, in 2005. The province ordered an inquiry in 2011 to find out how five-year-old Phoenix slipped through Manitoba's child-welfare safety net.

The inquiry has heard testimony about a "walk of shame" that may have been part of its fabric.

The term refers to when Winnipeg Child and Family Services' intake unit wouldn't open a case file referred by emergency workers such as Buchkowski. Instead of investigating further, the intake unit sent the file back to the crisis-response unit, saying its workers needed to do more to justify an investigation or close the file.

On March 5, 2005, CFS's after-hours unit got a call with concerns about Phoenix and a description of where her apartment building was located. Two days later, Buchkowski in the crisis-response unit was assigned the case.

"It was a high priority," said the man, who's worked in child protection for more than 20 years but doesn't have a social work degree. "The family has an extensive history and the child was previously in care."

Through calls to social assistance and the Winnipeg School Division, where Phoenix was registered for nursery classes but never attended, he was able to confirm an address. He went that day to the inner-city apartment building -- in the morning and the afternoon -- but couldn't get in because it was locked.

Buchkowski said he believed he did everything he could in the one day he had to work on the file. He wrote up what information he had and recommended the intake unit upstairs open a file for further investigation.

"We didn't define what the abuse was yet," said Buchkowski. "I assumed someone would try the next day." Instead, the file on Phoenix ended up on the "walk of shame" and bounced back to his crisis-response unit.

Buchkowski said he doesn't know why Phoenix's file wasn't accepted by the intake unit for further investigation. The file ended up being closed by the crisis-response unit without anyone seeing Phoenix, the inquiry heard.

Today, a CFS file can't be closed without someone seeing the child, said Buchkowski, who still works in the crisis-response unit.

"All the children are supposed to be seen," he said. And workers are likely to have more consistent information to work with because of the "structured decision-making tool" everyone has for gathering information.

The after-hours unit worker who took the call Buchkowski acted on didn't include information about the last time CFS had been involved with Phoenix Sinclair. "It could've been an error on my part," Jacki Davidson told the inquiry Monday morning.

She took the March 5 call from a foster parent that Phoenix may be being abused and locked in a bedroom by her mother. Last week, the caller, whose grown foster child was a friend of Kematch, testified about concerns for Phoenix's safety. The caller, who can't be identified, said they were livid because Davidson didn't want to hear third-party information. The foster child testified earlier to being scared of Kematch and distrustful of CFS and asked their foster parent to make the call about Phoenix.

Davidson said Monday she wanted to hear directly from the source. "The person I was talking to hadn't seen any of it." If someone had said they saw a child being hurt and were more specific, someone from after-hours would've gone out right away, said Davidson, who recently retired from CFS.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 15, 2013 A5

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