Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A young girl trapped in a broken system

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Winnipeg Child and Family Services was rocked by three major changes in the years immediately before and during Phoenix Sinclair's anguished life and death.

Alana Brownlee, current CEO of the agency, testified Wednesday morning at the inquiry into the circumstances into the child's death. The agency was in charge of Phoenix's case from her birth in 2000, when she was seized from her mother. The child would switch in and out of the care of her family and CFS until she was murdered by her mother and the mother's boyfriend in 2005.

One of the mysteries to be solved is how a child in care could be tortured to death, buried near a dump and not be missed for nine months. A little light was shone on that question on the first day of the inquiry. From her birth in April 2000 to October 2000, Phoenix had four different social workers. Those workers had four different supervisors in the same period.

How do you keep track of the children in care with that kind of turnover?

Brownlee testified the agency was restructured in 1991, 1999 and 2001.

In 1991, the Winnipeg CFS was formed as part of a "recentralization" of other organizations. In 1999, it was restructured to provide more programs to children and families.

The 2001 shakeup came with devolution, a massive turning over of child-welfare files to newly formed aboriginal and Métis child-welfare authorities.

Staff spent their time continuing to provide services and preparing to transfer files to the new agencies, Brownlee said. Between May 2, 2005 and Oct. 24, 2005, 2,500 case files were moved.

Phoenix was killed on July 11, 2005. Brownlee didn't use the word chaos to describe the transition, but that's sure what it sounded like.

Additionally, in 2003, Winnipeg CFS went from being a private organization to becoming part of the provincial government. Some workers were afraid they'd lose their jobs, Brownlee testified, although the government assured them they wouldn't.

With devolution, a change in employer and the challenge of caring for clients while preparing to transfer their files, it's fair to say Winnipeg CFS workers were stressed to their limits.

And into this, a child was born.

Devolution didn't kill Phoenix Sinclair, but the strains on the system could not have enhanced her care. The province has always been adamant devolution is not to blame. At least 16 kids in care or with open CFS files have died from homicides, suicides or accidents since Phoenix's murder.

The role of the restructuring of the child-welfare system is a part of what commission lead counsel Sherri Walsh will determine in the coming months.

She wasted no time Wednesday morning. In under an hour, the lawyer briskly laid out the phases of the inquiry, expected timelines, names of those with standing and expected outcomes. This is the first public inquiry in Manitoba to focus on the child-welfare system. Walsh made it clear it will be conducted with the gravitas required.

Six reports into Phoenix's death have already been conducted, including one by the province's chief medical examiner.

Photos of Phoenix were prominently displayed during her opening remarks. It's important to see these pictures, she said, and necessary to ask "how it is in our society that a small child can become so invisible."

Phoenix seemed to all but disappear in the legal wrangling leading up to the long-delayed opening of this inquiry. There was a veritable gaggle of lawyers in the inquiry room, 22 of them representing the 14 parties with standing.

This is just the beginning of the truth-telling. Weeks of hard testimony are to come. Answers will be obtained and more recommendations made.

At the end, let's hope that poor child's suffering will somehow help fix what was so, and remains to a degree, terribly broken.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 6, 2012 A3

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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 has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

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

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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