Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Much to be gained by doing this'

Inquiry set to begin seven years after little girl murdered

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If Phoenix Sinclair were alive today, she'd have just started Grade 7.

Instead, her too short and tragic life will be the subject of a public inquiry, which is expected to finally get underway this morning.

It has been more than seven years since she died, but Family Services Minister Jennifer Howard said the process will be worthwhile.

"I still think there is much to be gained by doing this," said Howard.

Howard said she was just recently re-reading some of the case material and said while much has been done since Phoenix died, as long as kids are still at risk there will be more to do. "We're going to hear the details of what happened to her again, and all the missed opportunities that were there to protect her."

Phoenix was just five years old when she was murdered on June 11, 2005, after enduring horrific abuse at the hands of her mother, Samantha Kematch and stepfather, Karl Wesley McKay. Her death went unnoticed until nine months later, when her 12- and 15-year-old stepbrothers had the courage to come forward and tell police what they knew.

Kematch and McKay were both convicted of first-degree murder in December 2008 and sentenced to life in prison without parole for at least 25 years.

Until now, the child-welfare system's role in the case has largely been kept under wraps, with few specific details of her CFS involvement raised at Kematch and McKay's criminal trial.

Phoenix was born on April 23, 2000, and immediately taken into care because Kematch and Phoenix's father, Stephen Sinclair, could not care for her. Over the five years, one month, two weeks and two days of her life, CFS would open and close her file three times. She moved between foster care and the homes of both of her parents. When she was killed, her file with CFS was closed and had been for three months.

The final connection she had with the system was in March 2005, when a complaint was made she was being abused. Kematch refused to let the social worker into her home to see her daughter. The file was subsequently closed. Three months later, Phoenix was dead.

The closure came at the tail end of a process known as devolution, which saw more than 7,000 files of aboriginal children transferred from non-aboriginal to aboriginal CFS agencies between 2003 and 2005.

The provincial government has been adamant from the start devolution was not to blame.

Stephen Sinclair and a former foster mother, Kim Edwards, both hope the inquiry will finally describe the details -- to them and the public -- of what Child and Family services did and didn't do.

"They just want to know the truth," said their lawyer, Jeffrey Gindin. "It's been an emotional roller-coaster for them and has been for many years."

He has instructed them not to give interviews until the inquiry is over.

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak hopes the inquiry puts to rest those accusations against devolution and shows the systems that failed Phoenix were not aboriginal systems.

However, he's not hopeful because, until now, all those involved seem more intent on avoiding responsibility than trying to figure out what really went wrong.

"As long as that remains the focus of people, to try and hide and protect themselves, this is not going to yield the results we hope," Nepinak said.

Phoenix's death spawned three reviews of child welfare in Manitoba resulting in more than 290 recommendations. The province says 90 per cent of them have already been implemented, including doubling child-welfare funding to $425 million a year, adding 230 new workers to the system, adding new risk-assessment tools and improving training for social workers.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

INQUIRY TIMELINE:

April 23, 2000: Phoenix Victoria Sinclair is born in Winnipeg and immediately taken into Child and Family Services custody. She will live in and out of the care of her parents and the system for most of her life.

June 11, 2005: Phoenix is murdered by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl Wesley McKay, in Fisher River First Nation. Three months earlier, her case file with Child and Family Services had been closed for the third time.

March 2006: More than nine months go by and no one seems to notice Phoenix is missing. Phoenix's stepbrothers, then 12 and 15, tell their mother what they know and she goes to police. Kematch and McKay are arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Oct. 11, 2006: Premier Gary Doer announces a formal inquiry will be held to look at the circumstances surrounding Phoenix's death.

December 2008: Kematch and McKay are convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole for at least 25 years.

March 25, 2011: Attorney General Andrew Swan assigns former justice Ted Hughes as commissioner of the inquiry and sets a deadline of March 30, 2012 for him to deliver his final report.

June 2011: Inquiry commission announces delays because it must go to court to seek permission to see confidential child-welfare documents. The deadline of March 30, 2012 for a final report will not be met.

February 2012: The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union attempts to have a court shut down the inquiry, saying the province had no authority to call it in the first place. The request is denied in March.

June 2012: Hughes sets Sept. 5 as the start date for inquiry hearings.

July 2012: Social workers are denied an application for a publication ban on the names of those involved in the care of Phoenix Sinclair.

INQUIRY MANDATE:

the child-welfare services provided or not provided to Phoenix Sinclair and her family under the Child and Family Services Act;

any other circumstances, apart from the delivery of child-welfare services, directly related to the death of Phoenix Sinclair;

why the death of Phoenix Sinclair remained undiscovered for several months.

INQUIRY SCHEDULE:

Public hearings are set to begin today inside the Pan Am Room at the Winnipeg Convention Centre. Hearings will be held Mondays through Thursdays, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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

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