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Efforts made to improve CFS while Sinclair being abused, inquiry hears

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Children with broken bones end up in the hospital, and children like Phoenix Sinclair ended up in child welfare, part of a steady stream of kids from wounded families arriving daily, the inquiry into her death heard today.

"Intake was and still is a very busy place," said Pat Harrison, the intake program manager for Winnipeg Child and Family Services from 2003 to 2005.

"I liken it to an emergency room in a hospital."

The inquiry has heard about the many times social workers on the front lines closed her file without seeing her.

Harrison said workers had to prioritize their cases, deal with them and move on.

"Demand is pretty constant," said Harrison. "We'd get 15,000 to 16,000 requests for service per year."

Phoenix was in and out of care and on and off CFS's radar from the time she was born in 2000 until she died in 2005 at the hands of her mother Samantha Kematch and stepfather Karl McKay. Her death wasn't discovered until 2006. Kematch and McKay were convicted of her murder in 2008. The province ordered an inquiry in 2011 to find out how Phoenix fell through the cracks of the child-welfare system.

Harrison talked about one of the efforts at the time to improve the system. He and two assistant program managers were hired in 2003 to replace one manager "spread too thinly" and running the front-line department's 12 teams by herself, he said.

Morale was low as workers and supervisors dealt with changes in the system, he said. There was also anxiety as devolution loomed with the creation of aboriginal agencies, and the solo manager didn't have a lot of time to deal with staff concerns.

"The hope was the three of us could improve that relationship." Harrison said. There wasn't much they could do about the heavy workload, the complexity of cases arriving at the CFS "emergency room" or to prevent kids like Phoenix from being at risk.

"Children are at risk," said Harrison. "That's what we do -- manage and mitigate risk. There always will be children at risk," said Harrison, who's concerned their numbers are growing.

"Over the years, we've seen more families in more difficulty and more children in more challenging situations," said Harrison. "A segment of our community is in very deep distress."

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