Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair most expensive ever

Legal challenges compound delays

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The little girl in care who was abused, neglected and treated like dirt when she was alive has become the subject of the most expensive and painstakingly detailed public inquiry in Manitoba history.

The inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair was supposed to be over last year, commissioner Ted Hughes said as the public hearings resumed at the oft-delayed inquiry Wednesday. His inquiry report on the 2005 death of the five-year-old in care was due seven months ago.

"The fact is, we have heard evidence for only 2-3/4 days," Hughes said. Now the inquiry is on target to be the most expensive this province has ever seen, he said. The rising cost and missed deadlines follow legal challenges by child welfare agencies and the union representing social workers that stalled the inquiry. Hughes reminded the attendees of its value.

"... The centrepiece of our work, as a lasting memorial to the short life of little Phoenix Sinclair, is the protection of all children, particularly the most vulnerable of them throughout the province."

The public hearings will take another 90 days between now and May 31 "barring further turns in the road," Hughes said.

On Wednesday, there was just a slight curve. A lawyer for the psychologist who assessed Phoenix's birth mother showed up to ask for standing at the inquiry. Gary Altman assessed Samantha Kematch in September 2000, five months after she gave birth to Phoenix, who was apprehended at the hospital and placed in care. The baby was reunited with Kematch for the first time that September. Eight years later, Kematch was convicted of the little girl's murder.

Hughes granted the psychologist standing. It was a minor delay and to be expected when there are thousands of pages of documents and many witnesses with reputations on the line, commission counsel Sherri Walsh said in an interview.

"This isn't supposed to be about ambushing people," she said.

It is supposed to be a chronology of what happened to Phoenix and how she fell through the cracks of the child-welfare system. It's starting with her first social workers. She was placed in care when she was born in April 2000 to young, unprepared parents with troubled backgrounds.

More than a decade later, workers who testified at the inquiry Wednesday said they didn't recall details of Phoenix's case. What they did recall is her parents' troubled pasts and present problems weren't necessarily a red flag.

Andy Orobko testified the family Phoenix was born into "typifies" the kind North Winnipeg CFS intake dealt with. Birth father Steve Sinclair and mom, Kematch, had both been permanent wards of the child-welfare system. They were young, living in poverty and totally unprepared for the baby -- like many others, said the former CFS supervisor.

Orobko was both social worker and supervisor on the little girl's case at one point because, he testified, his office was so understaffed.

With six social workers, they were handling more than twice the number of cases recommended by Child Welfare League of America standards, Orobko said. Staff got as many as eight new intake assignments a week, Orobko said. Department of Family Services and Consumer Affairs lawyer Gord McKinnon challenged Orobko's math, saying he was "overstating" the number of referrals -- that it was actually closer to four new cases a week per worker.

Orobko said not every worker could take new cases because of "other demands" on their time. When asked if the workload had any impact on the workers' performance, Orobko said no, it was "exemplary."

"They helped families achieve good outcomes," he said. After Phoenix was born, the agency arranged for a three-month guardianship. During that time, Sinclair and Kematch were to take parenting classes, have weekly visits with Phoenix, and Kematch had to have a psychological assessment before they'd get a chance to get her back, Orobko said.

Kerri-Lynn Greeley, the next social worker to take on Phoenix's case from May until October 2000, didn't recall details, either. She said she would've been concerned about case notes that said Kematch had one child taken into care already and was emotionally "flat and stoic" during visits with Phoenix, and that she hid both her pregnancies. Still, Greeley said, Kematch and Sinclair had met some of the expectations the agency had set for them.

Phoenix was returned that September to Kematch and Sinclair.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 2012 A4


Updated on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 9:44 AM CST: Adds CIL console.

12:18 PM: Clarifies evidence has been heard for only 2-3/4 days.

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