Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Phoenix inquiry wasteful?

Children's Advocate worries about 'huge' cost of proceedings

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The woman responsible for representing the rights and interests of children in Manitoba expressed doubt Friday about the value of a public inquiry into the 2005 death of Phoenix Sinclair.

Children's Advocate Darlene MacDonald said she understands why the government called the inquiry and agrees the "public has a right to know what went on in this situation."

But MacDonald is concerned about the "huge" amount of money that's being spent on the inquiry -- estimated at $4.7 million for the current fiscal year alone. And she noted several reports into Phoenix's death have already produced more than 200 recommendations for improvements to the child welfare system.

MacDonald, a former CEO of Winnipeg Child and Family Services who was named Manitoba Children's Advocate 15 months ago, suggested the money devoted to the inquiry would be better spent on improved resources for children and families -- in Phoenix's name.

MacDonald runs an office that operates independently of government, reporting directly to the Manitoba Legislative Assembly. One of its responsibilities is to carry out reviews after the death of a child who had been in care or whose family received services from CFS.

At an appearance before a legislative committee earlier Friday, MacDonald had expressed concern about "sensationalistic" media coverage of the Phoenix case and noted the reports and their recommendations for improvements.

Asked afterwards if she felt a public inquiry would shed much more light on the case, MacDonald paused and then replied: "I'm going to say something I shouldn't say. There can be other things learned. I think there have been a number of recommendations (already made). I think that the system has changed. It has improved.

"I think what is concerning for me is the amount of money going into a public inquiry. And I think in Phoenix's name, (there) should be, in her memory, money put into resources for children and families. That is... my personal viewpoint."

MacDonald also elaborated on her concerns about past and future press coverage of the case. She said the media should stick to reporting the facts and not prejudge the inquiry's outcome.

"It's almost like you're judge and jury right now as opposed to let(ting) the facts play out," she said. "Caregivers do end up, unfortunately, killing children, and it wasn't the social workers who did that."

MacDonald, who has 25 years of experience in the child welfare field, also said she doesn't believe social workers are reluctant to testify at the inquiry. "I do not believe there are any social workers that I've talked to that are concerned with giving their factual testimony. And do you know what? People want this to be over and done with.

"And I think the delays... people are saying, 'Oh my God, enough already. Get this over and done with. It's been too long.' And poor Phoenix, it's been very long (to bring) closure as well."

Phoenix was five when she was slain in 2005. It took more than nine months for officials to realize she was missing despite the fact that she had been in CFS care and only recently been returned to her birth mother. In 2008, her mother and stepfather were found guilty of first-degree murder.

At the inquiry, Winnipeg lawyer Jeff Gindin is representing Phoenix's biological father, Steve Sinclair, as well as Kim Edwards, who raised the child before she was returned to her biological mother.

"If there's one tragedy prevented based on an inquiry that costs a lot of money, it's probably wisely spent," said Gindin in reaction to the Children's Advocate's statements.

While several reports are automatically triggered by law in the case of a child who dies while in care, a public inquiry is a far more effective means of determining what happened, Gindin said. "Those (other) reports are a far cry from a court hearing where witnesses are examined, cross-examined and really tested."

A government spokesman declined to comment late Friday on MacDonald's statements except to say in an email: "... as you know, public inquiries are only called in exceptional circumstances. This inquiry was called because there remain questions surrounding Sinclair's tragic death that have never been answered publicly. The inquiry will help get those answers."

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2012 A3

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Updated on Saturday, June 9, 2012 at 7:13 AM CDT: adds fact box

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