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

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.

Christopher Zalevich testified Tuesday it wasn't agency standard to push to see Phoenix for himself.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Christopher Zalevich testified Tuesday it wasn't agency standard to push to see Phoenix for himself.

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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