Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

CFS supervisor defends closing file on Phoenix

No 'child-protection concerns' in the case

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The supervisor who closed the file on Phoenix Sinclair twice in three months without social workers ever laying eyes on the child stuck by her decisions Thursday at the inquiry into the death of the little girl.

"If I had felt there were child-protection concerns, I would not have closed this case," said Diva Faria. She was in charge of a crisis-response unit for Winnipeg Child and Family Services when a hospital social worker and a foster parent raised red flags about four-year-old Phoenix and her family in December 2004 and March 2005.

Phoenix was beaten to death by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl "Wes" McKay, in 2005 but her death wasn't discovered until 2006. They were convicted of her murder in 2008 and the province ordered an inquiry in 2011 into how she fell though Manitoba's child-welfare safety net.

Faria was in charge of the last Winnipeg CFS workers assigned to the case before Phoenix died. Faria signed off on closing the file both times, even though neither had seen Phoenix.

In December 2004, a hospital social worker called CFS when Kematch had her fourth baby. Her first was a permanent CFS ward. Phoenix was apprehended twice. Kematch's third, Echo, died of respiratory illness after she abandoned Phoenix and newborn Echo with their father, Steve Sinclair. Her fourth was with McKay, a notorious domestic abuser with a long CFS file, who was now living with her, Phoenix and their newborn.

The assigned CFS worker admitted during her testimony that she likely didn't do a prior-records check on McKay. Shelley Willox (formerly Wiebe) thought she needed his birth date to find a match and wasn't able to obtain it. Without knowing McKay's background or seeing Kematch, Phoenix and the newborn, Willox recommended the case be passed to the intake unit. It wasn't handling crises and had more time to investigate. Her supervisor, Faria, said the intake unit rejected the case and sent it back to the crisis-responders. Faria told Willox to see Kematch, offer her services, and unless there was a reason for CFS to get involved, to close the file.

When Willox wasn't able to contact Kematch by phone, Faria told her to contact the public health nurse who may have visited the home to see the new baby. Public health nurse Mary Wu wouldn't offer any information because of new health-privacy rules. Wu testified earlier that if she had any child-protection concerns, she knew to report them. She had no recollection or notes of seeing Phoenix at the home. Wu said her focus was on the mom and the new baby.

Willox recommended the case be closed and Faria approved it.

Three months later, a foster parent called the CFS after-hours unit to report Kematch may be abusing Phoenix and locking her in a bedroom.

In March 2005, Christopher Zalevich and a backup worker who accompanied him for safety reasons went to Phoenix's home and spoke to Kematch. They didn't go inside the suite, see Phoenix or find out if she was being locked in the bedroom, even though Kematch admitted there was a lock on the outside of the bedroom door.

Zalevich recommended closing the file. Faria approved, and stuck by her decision on the witness stand Thursday.

"There was no information that she admitted to locking the child in the room," Faria said. The foster parent's "non-specific" abuse allegation could have been the yelling Kematch admitted to, said Faria. She said she trusted Zalevich and his backup worker, veteran Bill Leskiw, to ask the right questions and make the right decisions.

"We had two social-work staff attend to the home and identify no protection concerns," she said.

Her testimony continues Monday when the inquiry moves to the Fort Garry Hotel.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2013 A6

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