Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

He was curiously incurious; he was Phoenix's last chance

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Christopher Zalevich is the curiously incurious CFS worker who went to Samantha Kematch's apartment in March 2005 to investigate an abuse complaint and left without seeing her daughter, Phoenix Sinclair.

The crisis-response-unit social worker was following up on a telephone tip Kematch was locking Phoenix in her bedroom and possibly abusing her.

Kematch didn't want to let him into her suite. Zalevich accepted Kematch's explanation she was entertaining a friend. He, a colleague and the mother stood in the hallway for a brief chat. He didn't ask if there was another adult living in the home or who had fathered her new baby. He said he wanted to respect Kematch's privacy.

There were no signs of a party he could hear from the hallway, which Zalevich took as a good sign. He told Kematch there had been a complaint about possible abuse and Kematch said she'd shouted at Phoenix a few days earlier and was surprised someone heard her. That admission had nothing to do with the accusation.

She said there was a lock on the bedroom door. He warned her of the danger of locking in a child. His notes don't say whether he asked if Phoenix was ever locked in her room, or locked in her room and left alone.

He didn't ask a second time to enter the apartment, not even when Kematch went back into the apartment to fetch her newborn.

"Samantha returned into her apartment and brought (the baby) into the hallway. (The baby) appeared to be a content, healthy, clean and well-dressed baby. She was smiling and comfortable with Samantha."

Samantha Kematch, in the words of the woman who made the allegation, had a CFS file "a mile long or a metre deep." Zalevich would have known this had he read her file, something he claims he did as part of his normal practice. He was similarly ignorant that Karl "Wes" McKay was Kematch's common-law partner, and the father of the baby Kematch was holding in her hallway. If he'd known that, and if he'd looked him up, he would have learned McKay had a history of violence toward his partners and was not to be trusted around children.

Zalevich left the building satisfied, and recommended the file be closed. He testified he viewed the baby as "proxy" for Phoenix. If Kematch was treating the baby well, odds were good she treated her five-year-old the same way.

Zalevich is essentially a self-taught social worker. His university degree is in human ecology. When he started his job, he testified, he received no formal training in child welfare. He worked as both an abuse intake worker and crisis-response worker, again without formal training for either role. After 2001, he got "core competency" training and learned things informally from his co-workers, he testified.

He finally got training in child-welfare standards somewhere in 2007 or 2008, he said. That was two or three years too late. Under cross-examination, Zalevich said he didn't push to see Phoenix because "it wasn't agency standard."

How curiously incurious must he be not to put his foot in the door, cross the threshold and actually look at the child? In cross-examination, Jeff Gindin asked if it was true Zalevich didn't know any more about Phoenix and her possible abuse when he left as he did when he took the file.

"You could say that," he answered, and it would be true.

A report into the youngster's death revealed there was no indication she'd been seen by any social worker since Jan. 21, 2004. Kematch and McKay scuttled off to Fisher River with their children a couple of months later.

He is still a crisis-response-unit worker. Curiously, his failure on the Phoenix file wasn't enough have him moved to a less demanding job. Maybe it's context. He's not much worse than many others who have testified. It's just that he was Phoenix's last chance.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 16, 2013 A5

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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 wrote for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business -- though she joked she'd get around to them some day.

Sadly, that day will never come. Lindor died in October 2014 after a 15-month battle with brain cancer.

Lindor 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 earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and was awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

Reynolds was 56. She is survived by a husband, mother, a daughter and son-in-law and three stepdaughters.

The Free Press has published an ebook celebrating the best of Lindor's work. It's available in the Winnipeg Free Press Store; all proceeds will be donated through our Miracle on Mountain charity to the Christmas Cheer Board.


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