Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Inquiry hears of tumultuous relationship

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In less than a year, they went from being teens hanging out at the Boys and Girls Club with their first baby, Phoenix, to an estranged couple whose fury spilled over at a funeral home after the death of their second child.

The inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair heard for the first time Wednesday from someone who witnessed the tumultuous relationship and recalled holding baby Phoenix.

In 1999, Nikki Humenchuk (formerly Taylor) worked for the Boys and Girls Club on Stella Avenue as a supervisor when Samantha Kematch and Steven Sinclair were there before Phoenix was born. Humenchuk described how the young parents acted around Phoenix before their relationship ended. Kematch killed Phoenix in 2005.

"Steve was an excellent guitar player," said Humenchuk, who described him as "surprisingly sweet." Kematch, she said, was immature, cognitively delayed and had a tough time showing her emotions.

When Kematch became pregnant with Phoenix, it was obvious to staff at the club but Kematch and Sinclair denied it, said Humenchuk. The couple didn't tell her about the baby until the April 2000 day Phoenix was born and apprehended from the unprepared parents.

"I was in shock and I think I said 'I'll be right there,' " said Humenchuk. They didn't tell her about Kematch's previous baby who was apprehended, she said. They wanted to get Phoenix back and she helped them navigate the child welfare system to do it. She remembered being with them at Child and Family Services to see baby Phoenix.

"I took a turn holding her. Samantha and Steve seemed interested and caring and loving."

They got Phoenix back in September 2000. Kematch became pregnant again but didn't hide it, said Humenchuk. Echo was born in April 2001 and the family stopped spending much time at the club, she said. She learned the parents broke up that summer and Sinclair became caregiver.

On July 15, Echo died of an acute respiratory infection, an autopsy said. Police investigated and said foul play wasn't suspected. Humenchuk went to the baby's wake on July 18.

"It was a volatile situation," she recalled, with separate viewing times at the funeral home for the Kematch and Sinclair families. There was a family dispute and an outside source called the police because of fears violence would erupt, according to a crisis response unit report read at the inquiry. Kematch said there were bruises on the baby's body and accused Sinclair of inflicting them. Humenchuk contacted the chief medical examiner, who said the cause of death was a respiratory infection, not abuse. Then Humenchuk lost touch with them.

Sinclair had Phoenix and CFS closed the file on them in March 2002. It was reopened in February 2003, when the Child Protection Centre reported Phoenix was taken to the hospital with an infection caused by an object that had been left stuck up her nose for months.

The intake worker who was supposed to see Sinclair within five days didn't see the child for four months because no one was ever home, the inquiry heard Wednesday.

Laura Forrest said she went to check on the little girl the day she was assigned the case in February 2003. When Forrest went to the home, Sinclair was there but Phoenix wasn't.

"He presented at the door in a rather foul but sober manner," her notes at the time said. "He was also sporting a rather sizeable black eye which he refused to discuss."

He said Phoenix was staying with a family friend for a few days and he wouldn't tell her where, the inquiry heard. Forrest said she went back to the home several times but there was never an answer.

That June, Phoenix was apprehended by CFS after-hours staff on a weekend. Sinclair was abusing substances and leaving Phoenix with inappropriate caregivers, a report said. She was placed in an emergency shelter.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2012 A8

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