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Overworked CFS workers didn't prioritize Phoenix

This despite frantic calls from family member

One day in August 2005, a member of Phoenix Sinclair's extended family sat down and called every child welfare agency in the province. She estimates she made 20 or 30 calls.

The woman, who had been the child's primary caregiver for weeks in 2003, was worried because she hadn't seen the child in months and no longer believed Samantha Kematch's explanation she was with another caregiver.

Handout / The Canadian Press Archives
Phoenix Sinclair: despite reports, nothing done


Handout / The Canadian Press Archives Phoenix Sinclair: despite reports, nothing done

So she went to work, using numbers she got from the phone book and 411, and she told whoever answered she was an aunt looking for Phoenix Victoria Hope Sinclair, born on April 23, 2000. She was worried about Phoenix, she said, because she hadn't seen her for so long. Some CFS workers told her there was no file on Phoenix, which was false. She kept trying until she reached Stan Williams, the last of the child's many social workers. He told her Phoenix was fine and doing well.

That was false, too.

Contrast the efforts of this woman, who cannot be identified by order of the inquiry, to the weak efforts made by the child welfare system to ensure the safety of Phoenix. They had all the advantages: a computer system with the multi-generational history of the family's CFS involvement, paper files, direct phone numbers of everyone involved on the file and cautions there were recent abuse concerns.

When Kematch had her fourth child in December 2004, the hospital contacted CFS. They made sure CFS knew Karl McKay was the father of the newborn. The agency believed it didn't have McKay's date of birth, couldn't find it and so couldn't locate his file. If they'd tried, they would have learned he had a history of violence against his partners and, possibly, children.

The worker referred the file to another CFS unit. The unit sent it back. The file was closed without anyone seeing Phoenix. Supervisor Diva Faria authorized the closure. She was on the stand Monday and testified this sort of file passing occurred so regularly the workers called it the Walk of Shame.

In March 2005, an abuse allegation was levelled against Kematch. A woman called the CFS after-hours unit and said her foster daughter, a friend of Kematch's, told her the mom was locking Phoenix in her bedroom. When a pair of workers went to the apartment, Kematch wouldn't let them in. They spoke to her in the hall. They did not see Phoenix. The file was closed, again by Faria.

"This referral was not exceptional, it did not stand out in any way," she said. I'm not an overly sympathetic sort, but I felt sorry for Faria yesterday. The buck stopped with her but only because her colleagues refused to accept it. She said there were times when cases were "declined" by a unit and program managers had to step in. She used the expression "like a hot potato" to explain how these files were handled.

In Phoenix's case, she said, there was no specific allegation of abuse, the whistleblower refused to be identified and the social workers, sent to investigate, failed to identify further issues.

Of course, those workers didn't go into the apartment. They saw the newborn baby but not Phoenix. They left and, sorry if I'm repeating myself, Faria closed the file. It was a job, she said, that would have taken her no more than 30 minutes to complete.

They didn't see Phoenix because they didn't make it a priority. They didn't find Karl McKay's file because it was too much work to track down his date of birth.

There was nothing to indicate Phoenix's case was an urgent situation, Faria testified. Of course, and this is just my skeptical nature, if anyone had taken the time to look at Phoenix in the flesh it may have been bloody obvious there was a problem.

There is no question CFS frontline workers were (and continue to be) saddled with too many cases and not enough time to deal with them. They had to prioritize and Phoenix didn't make the cut.

"We were making decisions based on the information available to us," Faria said. So was the woman who tracked down Stan Williams, armed with nothing more than a phone book. The difference is, she considered Phoenix a priority.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 22, 2013 B2

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