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'She called me mom the entire time'

'It was most telling,' social worker says

Posted: 11/23/2012 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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There was no food in the house, dad was "buzzed" from smoking pot and entertaining gang members but when Phoenix Sinclair was removed from the home, she was happy, chubby and well-spoken -- and calling every woman "mom."

"She called me mom the entire time," Kim Hansen told the inquiry into Phoenix's death Thursday.

"I remember that," said the after-hours Child and Family Services worker who apprehended the little girl in June 2003. It was the second time Phoenix was apprehended after being taken at birth from her mother, Samantha Kematch, who murdered her two years later.

The inquiry is looking into Phoenix's death and her family's experiences with the child welfare system, starting from the time she was born in April 2000. She was taken into care then returned to her young parents at five months old. Her mom and dad, Steven Sinclair, had another baby in April 2001, broke up, and Sinclair took care of the children. Phoenix's infant sister Echo died from a respiratory infection in July 2001. In March 2002, Child and Family Services officially closed the file on the family.

It was reopened in February 2003 when Phoenix was taken to hospital by an unidentified man. She had a foreign object stuck in her nose that had been there for months. Her nose had become infected.

A social worker went to the home during business hours many times over the next few months, but never saw Phoenix.

Phoenix was apprehended after hours by Hansen in June 2003 during a weekend of binge-drinking and pot-smoking at the Sinclair home.

"It was very odd that she was calling me mom," said the worker with the CFS unit that works nights, weekends and holidays to check on children and rescue them if needed.

"It was most telling," she said. "A three-year-old child, developmentally, is very attached to their mother -- she is their lifeline," said Hansen.

"She didn't display or indicate any fear of strangers," Hansen said.

Normally, a child of that age is wary of strangers, she said.

Phoenix was surrounded by strangers that June weekend when she was taken into care again.

Police were initially called about binge drinking and concerns that a child was not being cared for, the files said.

Police reported they had a hard time rousing Sinclair from his sleep on the couch. Known gang members were at the home that weekend, the report said.

After-hours workers went there several times and told Sinclair they were concerned about him being under the influence and the well-being of Phoenix. Sinclair told them a woman there was caring for Phoenix. There was no food in the home. When the after-hours worker returned to her office, she discovered the woman caring for Phoenix had her own children apprehended. Hansen and a colleague went to the home late on a Sunday afternoon to check on Phoenix and brought food for the family.

There was a strong smell of marijuana and Sinclair said he wasn't stoned, just "buzzed," Hansen's notes at the time said.

"He was still high and not sober enough to take care of his child," Hansen told him. Sinclair said Phoenix was sleeping upstairs and he wouldn't let the social workers in.

"He was informed our involvement was to try and help him sober up and have a safe home for Phoenix," said Hansen. "He wasn't able to do that."

A houseful of people under the influence -- including gang members who may have had weapons -- and a three-year-old child in the middle of it was too much risk, Hansen and her supervisor decided.

They called police and apprehended Phoenix without incident. Sinclair told her he usually didn't drink or get high when he had Phoenix, she said.

"Steve does present with potential," her notes said. Phoenix was, after all, healthy, happy and well-spoken when they took her from his care, Hansen noted.

Phoenix was taken to the CFS shelter at Place Louis Riel. There, she called all her caregivers "mom," said Hansen.

The inquiry resumes Monday.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2012 A6

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