The social safety net that's supposed to protect kids in care didn't look strong Monday at the inquiry into the death of little Phoenix Sinclair. Social workers and a psychiatrist each testified they did what they were supposed to do, or the best they could with what they had to work with.
The psychiatrist who assessed Phoenix's mother for Winnipeg Child and Family Services testified he was asked to find out if Samantha Kematch was depressed, not whether she was able to parent or likely to murder her child, which she did five years later.
Dr. Gary Altman told the inquiry into the death of the little girl in care he consulted weekly for CFS and met once with Kematch for less than an hour.
Kerri-Lynn Greeley, the social worker in charge of Phoenix's case from the time she was a month old until she was reunited with her birth parents at five months, had asked Altman to see if depression was the reason for Kematch's "flat affect" (a severe reduction in emotional expressiveness) and "ambivalence toward the baby."
Greeley was the social worker who decided to return Phoenix at five months to Kematch and her biological father, Steve Sinclair, a week before Altman assessed the mother. Greeley testified last week at the inquiry Kematch and Sinclair were meeting all of the requirements set out in a court order for them to regain custody of the daughter taken from them at birth. Altman said he was given a brief oral rundown on Kematch by Greeley.
He was told Kematch had a troubled past as a foster child, had already lost a son to care and that Phoenix was apprehended at birth. Altman wasn't shown any of the files on Phoenix or Kematch.
He said he wasn't asked to assess whether Kematch was capable of parenting but to find out if she was depressed.
Altman said he interviewed her at the CFS office with Sinclair present. He said he can't recall details of the meeting but relied on the notes he took at the time.
The psychiatrist deduced Kematch wasn't depressed but was a "closed book" in her dealings with others.
He told the inquiry there could have been other reasons for her ambivalence toward her baby, and they might have affected her ability to parent the child, but that wasn't what CFS asked him to find out, Altman said.
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority paid him to provide three hours a week of consultation to Child and Family Services.
He'd go to agency offices to help social workers and give them feedback and advice for dealing with their clients.
He wasn't there to treat patients, Altman told the inquiry.
After meeting a client and debriefing the social worker, he had no expectation of ever meeting that client again, he said.
Altman said he kept notes but didn't provide written reports for clients' files.
A year after Phoenix was born, Kematch delivered her third child in April 2001. A Health Sciences Centre social worker who could not be publicly identified told the inquiry Delores Chief-Abigosis, the CFS social worker now handling the case, was notified about the birth and had no idea that Kematch was even pregnant.
Chief-Abigosis took over the Phoenix file from Greeley in October 2000 and is expected to testify at the inquiry next week.
An internal review released by the commission of inquiry last week said from October 2000 until March 2001, there was no recorded CFS contact with Phoenix's family even though a six-month service agreement filed with the court said there was to be "regular contact" with a social worker.
The hospital social worker said they didn't check in on Kematch and her new baby after they were discharged from the hospital because that wasn't the job of the hospital social worker, the inquiry heard.
When Kathy Peterson Epps took over Phoenix's CFS case from Chief-Abigosis in August 2001, it wasn't high on the priority list, Peterson Epps told the inquiry Monday.
"Quite frankly, we had to prioritize more high- risk cases," said the social worker, who recalled dealing with 30 to 40 "challenging" cases at once. At that time, Phoenix Sinclair's case appeared "pretty much ready to be closed."