Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Publication ban 'true danger' to Phoenix inquiry

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A publication ban on the identities of social workers involved in the care of Phoenix Sinclair will hinder accuracy and stop Manitobans from getting information they should know, a lawyer representing media outlets argued Thursday.

Jonathan Kroft, who represents a number of media outlets, including the Free Press, argued against a publication ban before inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes. The ban would make it illegal to publish or broadcast names and faces of social workers involved in the five-year-old's care who appear at the inquiry.

Kroft said a publication ban would create a "true danger" to Canadians, and "permit an unaccountable group of anonymous civil servants to make decisions" that violate charter rights.

"We're not talking about trivial rights, trivial matters," said Kroft. "We're talking about rights that go to the very heart of our democratic tradition, a tradition the children have a stake in."

The inquiry will delve into Phoenix's care before she was murdered in 2005 by her mother and stepfather. It is slated to begin in September.

On Wednesday, a lawyer representing the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union argued for the ban, telling Hughes the social workers would become "game for the bloody-minded."

But Kroft told Hughes a ban would be wrong.

"They're asking you to make it to illegal for the media to tell the citizens of this province who they are, to reveal who was providing you with the information that you are going to be relying on to make the recommendations (for) what everybody in this room agrees is a central government service," he said.

Phoenix was abused and killed in her home after child welfare workers took her out of foster care and returned her to her mother.

She went missing for more than nine months before her remains were discovered in a landfill in Fisher River First Nation in 2006.

Earlier Thursday, Hafeez Khan, who represents Intertribal CFS, said the agency's involvement with Sinclair was "negligible," but faulty perceptions persist. Intertribal CFS is among those who support the MGEU's publication ban application.

"Even when we set the record straight, in our respectful view, there is no way of completely eradicating that perception," said Khan.

The inquiry is to examine how the child welfare system failed to protect Phoenix. She had spent most of her life in foster care but was returned to her mother, Samantha Kematch, in 2004. The girl suffered repeated abuse by Kematch and her boyfriend, Karl McKay. Phoenix died after an assault in June 2005 at the family home on the Fisher River reserve. Child-welfare workers had earlier closed the girl's file and decided all was well. A few months before she died, a social worker went to check on her and was told she was asleep. He saw a sibling playing outside who appeared healthy and decided that was sufficient.

According to evidence in the first-degree murder trial that led to life sentences for Kematch and McKay, Phoenix was frequently confined, shot with a BB gun and forced to eat her own vomit.

The lawyer for Kim Edwards, the foster mother who cared for Phoenix for much of her short life, will also argue against the publication ban.

Hughes is to render his decision on the ban next Thursday.

-- with files from The Canadian Press

gabrielle.giroday@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2012 A5

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