Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

CFS closed files on Phoenix's dad

Met agency's requirements, inquiry told

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He grew up with violence, neglect and alcoholism. He was 21 years old when his partner left him and he had to raise two kids under the age of two, one of whom died as an infant.

But Child and Family Services decided he was good to go and closed the case file on Phoenix Sinclair's father three years before Phoenix died.

The inquiry into her death heard Tuesday that Steven Sinclair had family and community support and met the requirements of the child welfare agency.

Social worker Kathy Peterson Epps said she took over Sinclair's file in August 2001. She and her supervisor decided in October it was time to close his file, she said.

"At the time I took over the file, the child protection concerns had been addressed," she told the inquiry.

Peterson Epps had known Sinclair and his sisters for nearly a decade as their case worker when they were children in care. Sinclair, she said, had community resources, help from his sisters and family friend Kim Edwards, and had completed the programs CFS required to get his kids back.

"The situation appeared somewhat stable," said Peterson Epps, who had never met Phoenix.

That summer, though, Sinclair was on his own with 14-month-old Phoenix and two-month-old Echo. He and the kids' mother, Samantha Kematch, broke up in June 2001. It was an ugly split -- she charged him with assault; he denied it and got a non-molestation order against her and charged her with uttering threats, the inquiry heard.

In July of that year, Sinclair and his adult sisters asked Peterson Epps for advice. She wasn't Sinclair's case worker yet but they trusted her. Sinclair said he didn't know he had a CFS worker assigned to his case at that time, she said.

Sinclair and his siblings said they were afraid Kematch would try to get custody of the children, she said. Kematch was after the child tax credit money and wanted custody to get it, Peterson Epps said she was told. Sinclair told her Kematch was physically abusive to Phoenix. He wondered what to do if she showed up to get the kids.

"Call the Winnipeg Police Service and if District 3 is too busy call the after-hours CRU (crisis response unit) and let them know what the situation is... that the child will be at risk in her care," Peterson Epps recalled advising him. She'd never met Kematch but believed Sinclair.

Sadly, Sinclair's worst fears came true in 2005 when Kematch murdered Phoenix.

Sinclair lost his other daughter on July 15, 2001. He found three-month-old Echo unresponsive in her crib. Efforts by a family member and paramedics to resuscitate her failed. The baby girl was taken to hospital and pronounced dead 15 minutes later.

The chief medical examiner's report said Echo appeared "chubby and well cared for." The autopsy conducted the next day determined the cause of death was an acute and chronic lower respiratory tract infection. The police who investigated the baby's death contacted CFS to say there appeared to be no foul play.

Peterson Epps took charge of Sinclair's file in August 2001.

"Given the fact this parent recently had a loss in his family, we wanted to reach out (to Steven)," Peterson Epps told the inquiry. They offered him services in the "hopes" he might respond and accept them, she said.

"We knew there was a chance he might not respond to any of my overtures. The Sinclairs did not have a lot of faith in the system at the time," said Peterson Epps. A relative had a bad experience in foster care and Sinclair didn't want his own children ending up in care, she said.

Peterson Epps said she tried to meet with him but he wasn't home when she dropped by. She wrote him a letter asking him to come to the office but he didn't respond.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 21, 2012 A5

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