Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A social worker who did everything right

But she was up against impossible odds

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The inquiry into the circumstances of Phoenix Sinclair's death is learning much more than the circumstances of her truncated life.

Testimony on Wednesday revealed some children in Winnipeg's North End were so maltreated in the spring and summer of 2003 that Phoenix and her parents were not a CFS priority. Knowing what we do now about that child's life, how miserable were the lives of children CFS deemed to be at a higher risk?

In 2003, Phoenix was living with her father, Steve Sinclair. The family's CFS file was closed in 2002 because Sinclair said he didn't want any more CFS involvement in his life.

Echo, the second child of Sinclair and Samantha Kematch, died in July 2001. Sinclair was investigated by police and cleared. The baby died of pneumonia. He and Kematch separated in July. Relations between the pair were so poisonous police were called to the baby's viewing. Still, there was no CFS involvement, no one keeping an eye on young Phoenix.

It was a lower risk file, you see.

In February 2003, a stranger identifying himself as Phoenix's godfather took the three-year-old to the Children's Hospital ER. She had something stuck in her nose. It had been there for months, he said, and he'd told her father to get her to a doctor.

A hospital note says Phoenix had "a foul smell, purulent discharge and foreign body in her right nostril."

A new CFS file was opened and intake worker Laura Forrest was put in charge. She went to Sinclair's house and found him in a foul mood, with a black eye. He wouldn't say where Phoenix was.

She was so busy with other files, and Steve Sinclair so difficult to deal with, that she never met Phoenix. She had many resistant clients, she testified, because CFS is rarely welcome in people's homes. She went back to the Sinclair house again on March 31. No one was home. Here's a snippet from her report:

"In the absence of other concerns, and with caseload demands, subsequent fields to the home were only attempted April 17, May 1, and May 9 2003 and all were unsuccessful in establishing contact with Steven and Phoenix."

She would later be lauded for making that much of an effort.

Commission counsel wanted to know why Phoenix was never seen. The case was considered lower risk, Forrest repeated. She testified she was trying to balance her other cases and it was impossible to plan her day and stick to the plan. She testified there was nothing at the time the file was reopened to indicate clear and present danger to Phoenix.

No one in the system knew where the child was and her father wouldn't answer the door. From my seat, a child who gets taken into the ER with a months-old infection is in relative danger. When that child disappears, alarm bells might start to tinkle.

Phoenix was finally seized from her dad in June after sources reported there was a drinking party going on at the house. The toddler was taken to a downtown hotel used as an emergency shelter. A handwritten note in her file says she was wearing a pair of pink panties, a blue-and-white T-shirt and a pair of blue denim jeans. Her father couldn't find her jacket.

Shortly after, Samantha Kematch popped up with a fresh interest in parenting. She hadn't seen her surviving daughter since the spring.

"Samantha has never demonstrated a true interest in her role as mother/parent," a report into Phoenix's death would later conclude. "She has shown a pattern of leaving her children."

Sinclair vanished, not making it to the court appointment that would sign his daughter back into care.

The inquiry heard allegations he was involved with the Indian Posse, drinking heavily and had been leaving Phoenix with other people as often as he took care of her.

Forrest did everything right after Phoenix was brought back into care. There are so many families, she said Wednesday, and their circumstances continue to grow more complex.

When Phoenix's file was transferred from Forrest to a new family services social worker on July 27, 2003, it was categorized as high risk. The next days and weeks will tell us what that really meant.

We can only wonder at the horrors experienced by those children CFS did deem to be at high risk in the summer of 2003.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2012 A10

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she wrote for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business -- though she joked she'd get around to them some day.

Sadly, that day will never come. Lindor died in October 2014 after a 15-month battle with brain cancer.

Lindor received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.

Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and was awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

Reynolds was 56. She is survived by a husband, mother, a daughter and son-in-law and three stepdaughters.

The Free Press has published an ebook celebrating the best of Lindor's work. It's available in the Winnipeg Free Press Store; all proceeds will be donated through our Miracle on Mountain charity to the Christmas Cheer Board.


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