Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Not reason to delay inquiry

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The commissioner of the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry has refused a request from child welfare authorities for access to transcripts of interviews with social workers prior to the launch of the review. Commissioner Ted Hughes told the umbrella authorities they will have to make do with summaries of the interviews regarding what is to be said by the workers at public hearings that begin next month.

The child welfare authorities concede that -- prior to the inquiry's onset -- it was agreed all parties would receive summaries of the interviews of witnesses. But having learned some of the interviews were recorded and transcribed, the authorities -- the umbrella bodies under which child and family services agencies operate -- decided they wanted to read through the entire conversations.

Commission counsel has interviewed more than 140 witnesses and potential witnesses in preparation for the inquiry into the death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair, a girl who was in care or under the watch of child and family services agencies before being brutally beaten and then murdered by her mother and step-father in 2005. Phoenix's body was buried near a dump at Fisher River for nine months before any agency knew she was missing. Commission counsel Sherri Walsh notes she and her associates told those interviewed that only matters relevant to the inquiry's work would be disclosed to other lawyers.

The commission rules regarding the interviews were discussed with all lawyers, where it was agreed summaries of the interviews of witnesses would be provided to them. While those lawyers were present when their own clients were interviewed, they were not in the conversations with other potential witnesses. It is these full discussions with the social workers that the umbrella authorities want access to.

The authorities now have the option of asking a Court of Appeal judge to overrule that decision. The authorities say at the time it was agreed they would accept interview summaries, they were unaware that there would be transcripts compiled -- something Ms. Walsh said was done because, as the interviews proceeded, it became clear handwritten notes were inefficient and recordings were more reliable.

It would be unfair, now, to give the transcripts of interviews that were not conducted under oath to other lawyers. The interviews were conducted with the understanding that only relevant matters would be shared, in summaries. The authorities raised the possibility of gaining permission from the interviewees, but that would invite the potential for intimidation of social workers and their supervisors.

The child welfare authorities say that since the interviews were compiled into transcripts, they become documents that ought to be available to them as are all the others and they would rather not rely upon commission counsel to decide what, among the conversations, is relevant. But that was not what was told to the social workers when they were asked to sit for interviews and releasing transcripts betrays that understanding, given in accordance with the rules.

The authorities should accept that fact and move on to meet the Sept. 5 start date for public hearings. This inquiry, starting a full seven years after Phoenix's death, has been delayed repeatedly by various motions and cannot be held up further.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2012 A10

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