November 26, 2015


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A disconcerting case of bad memory loss

Maybe the dog ate Delores Chief-Abigosis's notes.

That's as likely as the explanation given by the former social worker for her apparently laissez-faire approach toward Samantha Kematch and Steve Sinclair's CFS file. Chief-Abigosis spent a second day on the stand at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry insisting she may have visited the family home more often than the records show. She is hampered by an apparent inability to recall much about the tragic case, but said repeatedly those visits were possible.

Delores Chief-Abigosis (top) says she may have visited the family home more than her records show.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Delores Chief-Abigosis (top) says she may have visited the family home more than her records show.

It's also possible I won a Pulitzer Prize and forgot to tell anyone, and about as likely. She was trained to take those notes and that was her practice.

Chief-Abigosis had the file from November 2001 to August 2002. Records show that from Feb. 9, 2001 to July 4, 2001, no one from CFS had direct contact with the family. No one saw Phoenix or Echo, the baby who came after her.

Chief-Abigosis didn't know Kematch was pregnant with Echo and didn't visit her in the hospital. She had a large caseload, of course, and testified she was very busy working full time, going to university full time and commuting to Winnipeg from the Brokenhead reserve.

Inexplicably, not a single lawyer asked her how it was possible to attend university full time and work full time as a social worker.

Her time on the stand was a volley of lawyers' questions and flat non-answers. Jeff Gindin, lawyer for Steve Sinclair and Kim Edwards, showed her a lengthy list of people who knew the couple and allegedly supported their parenting efforts. He used Nikki Taylor, then an employee of the Boys and Girls Club, as an example. Do you remember phoning Taylor, Gindin asked. I don't recall, came the inevitable answer.

Gindin persisted.

There's no evidence you checked out Kim Edwards, the woman who took care of Phoenix for much of the time Chief-Abigosis held the file. What did you do?

"I can only present what is in my notes," she said, still insisting it was possible she'd done more.

"So you either lost the notes, didn't make notes of important things or didn't do them," Gindin said.

Chief-Abigosis said it was culturally common for a child to have multiple caregivers. That may be, but surely CFS should be checking them out. On June 29, 2001, the CFS crisis response team got a call that Sinclair was drinking. Phoenix was supposed to be with Sinclair's family or her godmother, Kim Edwards. No one checked to make sure she was OK.

On July 6, Chief-Abigosis went to the home herself and saw Sinclair caring for baby Echo, but Phoenix wasn't there. He said friends were looking after her. She didn't check that out. Echo died July 15. The social worker attended the funeral.

Gindin confirmed Chief-Abigosis spoke to Samantha after the newborn's death.

"That's what my notes say," she responded.

"After you found out about Echo's death, that's when you heard from Samantha?"

"That's what my notes say."

"She thought Steve was in some way responsible for the death?"

"That's what the notes say."

Chief-Abigosis is not the first CFS employee to suffer memory loss. We've heard repeatedly that 12 years have passed, there was nothing extraordinary about this family and caseloads were very high. All true. But other people, including Chief-Abigosis's supervisor, were able to review the case notes and shed significant light on the case.

Listening to Chief-Abigosis testify, I thought about the social worker involved with Samantha Kematch when she was in her teens. She saved the woman's firstborn by making him a permanent CFS ward, two years before Phoenix was born. She had a very heavy caseload at the time.

When we spoke Saturday, she vividly recalled her contact with Kematch and her conviction that she never be allowed to parent. She visited the hospital when the baby was born. When she talked about the newborn, she smiled. She remembered his little round head, she said, and what a sweet baby he was. She remembered.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 28, 2012 A4

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