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Baby's photo begins inquiry

Phoenix's tragic life to be retraced

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The evidence, as it emerges, will be alternately dense and devastating, a chronicle of how a child could slip through the cracks of a system designed to protect her.

But on Wednesday, the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair began like this: with a simple photo of a baby girl beamed on the big screen at one end of a Winnipeg Convention Centre meeting room.

That was Phoenix in foster care, when she was only an infant. In the photo, her chubby fingers explore the edge of goldfish bowl.

Five years later, she was dead, slain by her own mother and stepfather after horrific abuse. Her body wouldn't be discovered for months.

"It is important to see these images of Phoenix at the outset of this inquiry," inquiry commission counsel Sherri Walsh said. "Consider how it is that in our society, a small child can become so invisible... so invisible as to literally disappear."

Phoenix's 2005 death spawned three reviews of child welfare in Manitoba, resulting in more than 290 recommendations.

The province says 90 per cent of them have already been implemented, including doubling child-welfare funding to $425 million a year and improving training for social workers.

Now, the long-awaited public inquiry into the circumstances around her death will aim to put light on all that happened before and develop recommendations that could stop it from happening again. That work will begin in earnest today, as the inquiry retraces the chronology of Phoenix's life. The session is slated to begin with testimony from the first person who called CFS when Phoenix was born.

But before delving into the details of Phoenix's life and death, the inquiry delivered a little background. On Wednesday morning, about 30 people in the public gallery listened to Winnipeg Child and Family Services CEO Alana Brownlee describe how the province's child-welfare system worked in the years leading up to Phoenix's death. In the afternoon, a handful of observers returned to see a walk-through -- complete with screenshots -- of child-welfare agencies' internal information software.

Although this testimony was designed to be foundational, there was also a hint of the evidence Walsh is expected to lay out in the months ahead, when Brownlee told the inquiry how Winnipeg Child and Family Services went through a tumultuous restructuring that began when it became a government agency in 2003.

Then, in May 2005, the agency transferred 2,500 case files and 58 per cent of its staff to native-run agencies, in a process known as devolution.

"Essentially, (the agency was) going through three very significant changes simultaneously," Brownlee said, noting social workers had to complete new interview protocols, which added to workloads.

"Some staff had a fear that there would be job losses."

Phoenix's mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl McKay -- both serving life sentences for her murder -- will not appear before the inquiry. Kematch rebuffed an offer to discuss her experience with child-welfare authorities.

video player to use on WFP

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


Updated on Thursday, September 6, 2012 at 6:24 AM CDT: adds photo, adds video

7:26 AM: removes reference to fishbowl being empty

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