Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

CFS's 'best practice' not good enough

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Oh, those CFS employees and their rules. They love them. They call them "best practice." They swear they follow them zealously unless they're really, really overworked, or devolution is making a hash of their files, or they forget they're not supposed to take their notes home and destroy them. That sometimes happens, but that is not best practice.

The inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Phoenix Sinclair's life and death heard about one such diligent CFS employee on Thursday. She was working the phones at the Winnipeg CFS after-hours unit on March 5, 2005, when a woman called with information that five-year-old Phoenix might be in danger.

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The caller, who cannot be identified under a publication ban, is also a CFS employee and a licensed foster mother. She was calling at the request of her adult foster daughter, a friend of Samantha Kematch. The foster daughter told her she was afraid Phoenix was being locked in a bedroom and left alone, and that she'd heard what sounded like whimpering. She was afraid the child might be sexually abused.

The foster daughter wanted her to make the call because she thought they'd listen to the older woman. She didn't know CFS had rules about that, too. The foster mother called immediately. It was the only time the girl had asked her to do anything like that, she said, and "I trusted her judgment on it completely." But the after-hours worker didn't want to hear it.

"I started to tell the woman on the phone the concerns that had been related to me. I was told, 'I can't accept this information because it is third-hand,' " she testified.

The caller wasn't backing down. "I got pretty angry with her. I told her she would have to accept the information from me because it was valid and important information."

When the after-hours worker said she needed an accurate address for Kematch, the foster mom snapped.

You should have a file on her "a mile long or a metre deep," she said.

They did, of course.

She had one parting comment for the telephone operator. "I told her if anything happened to that child, I would hold her personally responsible."

The foster daughter was afraid of Kematch. She testified she was with another friend of Kematch's when that young woman called CFS and related their concerns. She claimed she told her own long-term social worker, Della Fines, about her worries.

Fines threw her under the bus when she testified Thursday. She said the young woman never discussed Samantha Kematch or Phoenix with her. She characterized the young woman as someone who pointed fingers at other people to deflect blame.

"She would express to me she was a good mom and other people around her were doing a worse job than her," Fines said. "She didn't want to deal with the fact that there were issues in her home. She wanted to deflect, to move the conversation away from her.

"She wanted me to know attention should go to other people in the community."

No specifics, just general, ongoing whining, Fines seemed to say, and all of it intended to get the heat off her. The problem is that even a broken clock is right twice a day and the young woman was dead right about the danger posed by Kematch and McKay.

The young woman testified she was worried because Phoenix was spending a lot of time with McKay, having toilet accidents and touching herself inappropriately. She said she shared her concerns with Fines. The social worker didn't remember any of this.

"I believe that this information never came to me as a social worker. I believe that she never gave me this information or reported concerns to me."

Because if she had, Fines would have followed up on those concerns. CFS has rules about that, too.

All this took place as the storm clouds of devolution gathered. Fines was seconded to an aboriginal agency. She remembers 2005 as "a very stressful time, the emotion surrounding the devolution and what was happening with us and our careers."

Still, if she'd been told about Phoenix, she would have written it down and reported it. She assured the inquiry that even under emotional stress, "I believe I continued to meet the standards."

God knows even as warning bells were clanging, as they did for all Phoenix's short life, those paid to keep her safe claim they were observing best practice.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2013 A6

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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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