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Former CFS head questions workers' last visit to Phoenix Sinclair's home: inquiry

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The former head of Manitoba's largest child welfare agency today had some questions about the way Phoenix Sinclair's case was handled.

At the inquiry into the death of the little girl, Linda Trigg questioned the kinds of inquiries workers made the last time Winnipeg Child and Family Services dealt with the girl's file when she was alive in 2005.

Two CFS workers went to Phoenix's home after receiving a call that the four-year-old's mother might be abusing her and locking her in a bedroom. They spoke to her mother, saw Phoenix's infant half-sister, and closed the file without ever seeing Phoenix herself.

Trigg, who was the CEO at CFS from 2001 to 2004, has testified that a child protection file shouldn't be closed without seeing the child.

Today, a lawyer for several child welfare authorities at the inquiry asked Trigg where in the agency's policy manual at the time was it written that workers had to see children before closing their files. Trigg didn't know but said it was expected that social workers would see a child before closing a child protection case.

"Clinical judgment and clinical skill is involved here," said Trigg.

Phoenix Sinclair was in and out of care from the time she was born in 2000 until her death in 2005 at the hands of her mother, Samantha Kematch, and her stepfather Karl McKay. Her death wasn't discovered until March 2006. Kematch and McKay were convicted of her murder in 2008. The province ordered an inquiry in 2011 into how and why Phoenix fell through Manitoba's child-welfare safety net.

Trigg, a clinical psychologist now in private practice, asked why the two workers who went to Phoenix's home in March 2005 didn't see the child or the bedroom with the lock outside the door. She asked why they didn't ask more questions. They spoke to Kematch in the hallway of the apartment building because she said she had a guest. They reported that Kematch said the abuse allegation was likely someone complaining about her yelling at Phoenix.

"I would take it further than that," said Trigg, who said she would've asked Kematch why she was yelling at Phoenix. They were there to find out about Phoenix's well being and yet Kematch brought out her and McKay's fussing but well-dressed and healthy newborn. After that, the workers left satisfied there were no child protection concerns and recommended closing the file.

Trigg said seeing the cared-for infant wouldn't have satisfied her that Phoenix was OK, and that it was OK to close her file.

"I would've been asking myself, 'Is this a proxy child?" Trigg said.

Trigg said the workers' supervisors had to approve closing a file, and that more training for workers and supervisors was needed.

When she was seconded from another major social welfare agency, New Directions, it was to "hold down the fort" at CFS as it was about to downsize and devolve with the establishment of aboriginal agencies, she said.

Workload was high, morale was low and there was no money or plan for hiring additional staff or making major changes with devolution on the horizon, Trigg said.

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