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Phoenix Sinclair inquiry expected to take 90 more days

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The Phoenix Sinclair inquiry is taking longer than expected and will cost more than any other public inquiry in Manitoba history, commissioner Ted Hughes said as public hearings resumed at the oft-delayed inquiry this morning.

The inquiry into the 2005 death of the five-year-old in care was established 19 months ago, with Hughes' report due last March.

"The fact is, we have heard evidence for only 2-¾ days," Hughes said this morning in a prepared statement.

The inquiry has been stalled by legal challenges filed by child welfare agencies and the union representing social workers.

Hughes said the public hearings will take another 90 days between now and May 31, "barring further turns in the road."

He reminded the hearing attendees the reason they are there: "...The centrepiece of our work, as a lasting memorial to the short life of litle Phoenix Sinclair, is the protection of all children, particularly the most vulnerable of them throughout the province."

The inquiry is examining how Phoenix's case fell through the cracks of the child welfare system. She was beaten to death in 2005 by her mom, Samantha Kematch, and her mom's boyfriend, Karl McKay, months after social workers removed her from a foster home and gave her back to her mother.

In the first five months of her life, Phoenix had four different social workers. They had five different supervisors.

In September, Orobko told the inquiry staffing levels were so low, it was impossible to meet provincial standards. When his staff was overwhelmed, he "marshalled" files in his office, holding cases until he had the staff to handle them. Sometimes, he took on the files himself, up to 20 cases at one point, when he was supposed to be supervising them, he told the inquiry earlier.

His testimony was cut short three days after the public hearings began when the Manitoba Court of Appeal agreed to hear arguments over whether previous witness interviews should be fully disclosed. Several child welfare authorities fought the decision by inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes to give them only summaries of the commission's pre-inquiry interviews with the 140 or so witnesses who are scheduled to testify. They asked the Manitoba Court of Appeal to grant them the full transcripts -- about 11,000 pages that would have to be reviewed line by line to delete confidential information before they could be released.

Last month, the court refused the request, allowing the inquiry to proceed.

Inquiry counsel Sherri Walsh called that delay "unfortunate" for the many witnesses anxious to testify.

The high court's decision, however, is helping to guide the inquiry and will be useful to other inquiries across Canada, she said.

"I am confident we will now be able to move forward to tell the story of Phoenix and to be in a position ultimately to answer not only what happened, but also how can this tragedy be understood."

The inquiry has also been delayed by challenges from the union representing Manitoba social workers and child welfare agencies. The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union went to court to try to limit the inquiry from finding fault. It lost that battle. It lost another court battle to grant anonymity to social workers who testify.

In March 2011, the Manitoba government announced Hughes would conduct an inquiry to examine the circumstances surrounding the death. It was to look at the child welfare services provided or not provided to the girl and her family under the Child and Family Services Act, any other circumstances directly related to her death, and why Phoenix's death remained undiscovered for several months.

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