A worried relative who hadn't seen Phoenix Sinclair for months and contacted CFS agencies all over Manitoba making inquiries was told the little girl was "doing fine" a month after she'd been slain.
The inquiry into the death of the five-year-old who spent her short life in and out of care heard Monday from a relative who spent a full day in August 2005 trying to track her down. Phoenix was killed in July 2005 by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl McKay. Her death wasn't discovered until March 2006 when her remains were found in a shallow grave at the Fisher River First Nation dump.
The relative, who cannot be identified, had seen Kematch several times after she, McKay, their newborn and Phoenix moved to the reserve in 2005. Kematch, who was pregnant with her fifth child, made regular trips to Winnipeg for doctor appointments and stopped at the home of the relative.
"She wasn't a good mother," the witness testified. "She was very mentally and emotionally abusive to the little girl."
The relative said they had cared for Phoenix for long stretches after Kematch left her at the age of one with her young, inexperienced father, Steve Sinclair, who battled substance-abuse issues. When Kematch took Phoenix again at the age of four, she was living with McKay.
"She wasn't a kind person to be around," said the relative, recalling one visit Kematch made to the home with McKay, their newborn and Phoenix. "I was getting ready to feed my children... Phoenix was looking at the plates I was putting down and I asked if she was hungry. She said yes. I asked her if she wanted to eat and she said yes." Kematch interrupted and said Phoenix would eat only when Kematch decided to feed her. That angered the witness, who swore at Kematch. " 'You're in my f*****g house -- if this little girl wants to eat, she's gonna eat.' I made her a plate and sat her down with my children."
Phoenix had shown up with head lice and "filthy" but there were never signs of physical abuse, said the relative, who testified Kematch was the one with the bruises and reported that McKay had caused them. McKay had a history of violent domestic abuse on his CFS file, the inquiry heard earlier. He also liked to drink, said the worried relative, who asked Kematch for permanent, unofficial custody of Phoenix.
"She could keep her welfare and she could keep her family allowance -- just let me have her. She told me it would never happen."
When Kematch repeatedly showed up at the witness's house with her and McKay's baby but not Phoenix, that raised a red flag for the relative. Alarmed, the relative spent a whole day in August 2005 calling child welfare agencies across Manitoba about Phoenix.
"They said they couldn't help -- she wasn't in the system," the relative said. They didn't ask questions either. After making 20 to 30 calls and getting nowhere, the witness contacted the band office of Sinclair, Phoenix's father. The band said aboriginal social worker Stan Williams was assigned to the case. The witness spoke to Williams by phone that day.
"I told Stan who I was and that I was looking for a little girl by the name of Phoenix... and gave him all of her information...
"He told me because I am not a blood relative he cannot disclose any information to me." He offered some reassurance, though.
"His last words to me were 'she's doing fine and well'... Those words ring in my head almost every day."
Phoenix was slain a month earlier. Williams died before the inquiry was ordered by the province two years ago.