Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Don't let Phoenix's death be in vain: foster mom

Final submissions made at inquiry

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The woman who cared for Phoenix Sinclair during much of her short life delivered a blistering and emotional personal impact statement Monday, asking the inquiry into the five-year-old girl's death not to worry about "offending the guilty."

Kim Edwards said the child welfare system and members of the aboriginal community did nothing to stop the abuse or death of Phoenix and it's up to inquiry Commissioner Ted Hughes to tell the truth and call for change.

"We believe the purpose of Phoenix's death is to change the system in a positive and fundamental way," Edwards said Monday.

Phoenix was tortured and killed by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl Wesley McKay, in 2005 at Fisher River First Nation. Her death wasn't discovered until March 2006. Several people had seen signs of abuse but didn't report it. Some suspected and reported abuse to CFS but a social worker never saw Phoenix.

'We believe the purpose of Phoenix's death is to change the system in a positive and fundamental way'

-- Kim Edwards, Phoenix Sinclair's foster mother, told the inquiry

The lawyer representing Edwards and Phoenix's biological father, Steve Sinclair, said the inquiry exposed a "system in chaos" -- mistrusted by the people it was supposed to help and not held accountable by anyone.

"The silver lining in this dark cloud must be a recognition of what went wrong and recommend actions that improve the system," said Jeff Gindin.

Notes that are crucial to child welfare cases were deliberately destroyed or disappeared, he said, calling for an overhaul of CFS reporting. Workers and their bosses lacked common sense and judgment, he said, pointing to an incident in March 2005 when Winnipeg Child and Family Services closed its file on Phoenix without seeing her.

"This is where the profound lack of common sense reaches a high point," said Gindin.

After receiving a call that Phoenix was being locked in a bedroom and possibly abused by Kematch, Christopher Zalevich was sent to check out the complaint. He took along a senior social worker for his own personal safety but didn't go inside the suite because Kematch said she had company.

The social workers didn't see Phoenix but spoke to Kematch in the hallway while she held her seemingly happy, healthy baby, whose dad was McKay. There's no note of Zalevich asking to see Phoenix or her whereabouts. In his records, he notes he mentioned to Kematch that the lock on the door was a fire hazard, then left. His supervisor, Diva Faria, testified earlier she agreed with him closing the file without seeing Phoenix because there were "no known protection concerns."

"He left knowing no more than when they got there," said Gindin.

The lawyer for the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union said heavy workloads, inadequate training and supervision prevented social workers from doing an effective job on every case and taking detailed notes. Trevor Ray said they spent the most time on cases where protection concerns were known. The union had complained to the government about workloads since 1999, said Ray. To illustrate how underfunded the system was at that time, he noted its funding more than doubled after Phoenix's death -- to $547 million from $215 million "to address systemic problems," Ray said.

"Those numbers tell you about the status of child welfare when services were provided to Phoenix," Ray said. "Despite the millions invested since 2006, the workload is still too high," he said.

"Money alone will not solve this issue," Gindin said in his final submission. "Even with all the money in the world you have to have good judgment and common sense."

"There are too many incidents of the bare minimum being done. Not all social workers made mistakes. Most did. Many did nothing."

Ray said social workers choose that field because they care about children. "Don't blame social workers. If social workers had more time to dedicate to prevention, better outcomes might have resulted."

"There was good work done on Phoenix's file at times, when it reached the top of the priority list."

The inquiry report is due Dec. 15.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 23, 2013 A5

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Updated on Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 7:21 AM CDT: replaces photo

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