Social workers at Fisher River First Nation, who helped apprehend two of Karl "Wes" McKay's sons a month after Phoenix Sinclair was murdered in the same house, testified Monday they had no idea a little girl had been living in the home.
Intertribal Child and Family Services worker Madeline Bird was the first witness to take the stand at the resumption of the inquiry into how five-year-old Phoenix slipped through the cracks of Manitoba's child-welfare safety net. Bird and fellow Fisher River social worker Violet Sinclair both testified they didn't know Phoenix was living in the community of 1,700 at the time. Bird said she is related to McKay but didn't know him well or that he had kids -- some of whom were living with him, including a stepdaughter, Phoenix.
Winnipeg Child and Family Services was the last agency involved with Phoenix and closed the file on her in March 2005 before she and her mother, Samantha Kematch and stepfather McKay moved to his home reserve north of Winnipeg. There, Phoenix was killed by McKay and Kematch in June 2005, but her death wasn't discovered until March 2006 after one of McKay's sons told his mother.
In July 2005, Bird said she received a call from McKay's probation officer about two of his children being left home alone while McKay, a trucker, and Kematch, his girlfriend, were out on the road in Ontario. The probation worker said the boy he spoke to at McKay's home sounded 10 or 11 years old and scared. Bird said they responded right away.
She and Sinclair went to McKay's rented home and spoke to his two adolescent sons. They said they wanted to go to their mom's home in Winnipeg. While Bird spoke to them, her co-worker did a check of the home. In the basement, she saw water on the floor with a frayed electrical cord plugged in nearby. She went to unplug it and saw something move underneath an air mattress.
"I screamed." Sinclair discovered a 20-year-old man hiding in the basement. The local man referred to only as "CJ" told the social workers McKay left him to babysit his sons.
Back at their office, Bird and Sinclair learned there was a warrant for the babysitter's arrest and contacted RCMP to return to the home with them to get the boys. Sinclair arranged to have Child and Family Services at Peguis, the band McKay's sons belong to, take the boys to their mom in Winnipeg.
In the meantime, McKay heard what happened and contacted Bird at the CFS office in Fisher River to ask about his boys. Bird transferred McKay's call to Sinclair to avoid a conflict of interest with a relative.
Sinclair told McKay the babysitter and the Kraft Dinner he left his boys with were inappropriate and inadequate, and his sons would be returned to their mother in Winnipeg.
Sinclair said when she was in McKay's home in July 2005, she didn't see any signs a little girl had been living there.
There is no record of her or Bird asking anyone if McKay had any other children. McKay had applied to the band for welfare for his family when they moved there in May 2005 and listed Phoenix as a dependent, but the social workers didn't check with welfare workers.
Neither Bird nor Sinclair checked to see if McKay had any prior contact with CFS.
Bird said she couldn't recall why she didn't check the CFS online database about McKay, who had a history of domestic violence.
At the time, the reserve had dial-up Internet access, and it was difficult to get online to look for child-welfare information, Bird said.
"A lot of times we'd get kicked out. You'd get frustrated with it."
There are still problems with the system eight years later, said Bird.
"Today, it's still not working very well."