If CFS had been truly interested in the location and safety of Phoenix Sinclair, they could have followed the money.
The inquiry into the child's short life and brutal death heard testimony from a welfare caseworker Monday morning. The woman, whose identity is hidden under court order, testified welfare kept clear records of who claimed to be caring for Phoenix and who expected compensation for doing so. CFS could have benefited from such a detailed record-keeping system used by social assistance, but that's an aside.
The source of referral (or SOR, as the inquiry calls witnesses whose identities are shielded) set the tone early. I think anyone who works with families has an obligation to look out for the children, she said. Indeed they do, and she tried, contacting CFS when she realized Phoenix was bouncing between her mother and father, both wanting money for looking after their own child.
Because the social assistance computer files can cross-reference claimants, the SOR quickly figured out that Steve Sinclair, Samantha Kematch and Karl McKay (the latter two would go on to murder Phoenix) all claimed to be raising the child at various points. Kematch had filed for, and received, the $477.42 child tax credit attached to Phoenix.
And so the SOR did what she believes any sensible person would do. She got in touch with Phoenix's CFS worker, trying to clear up her concerns. She'd been a little puzzled by the case all along. When she took over Steve Sinclair's case in 2004, he was supposed to be living with a cousin and caring for his daughter. When she talked to him in February 2003, he was essentially homeless, having been kicked out of his place by Manitoba Housing because he hadn't paid the rent. How you manage that while on the dole is a mystery to me, but he managed.
The SOR told Steve he had to find his own place and reclaim his daughter to keep getting benefits for her. He told the SOR Phoenix was staying with her godparents (Kim Edwards and Rohan Stephenson) and he was paying them about $100 a month for food and other necessities. That money, of course, came from the welfare he was getting for Phoenix. Sinclair expressed surprise he was supposed to be finding a job.
On May 21, 2004, the SOR emailed CFS social worker Lisa Conlin, asking her if Phoenix should be removed from Sinclair's welfare budget. Kematch had produced a letter at the social assistance office claiming she'd been looking after Phoenix since November 2003. She wanted financial assistance. The SOR was worried about the child being in her mother's care because she had been told neither parent was supposed to have her.
"If the child has been with the mother from Nov. 7/03 until now like she has stated to our department and legal aid, can you please get back to me as soon as possible," she wrote.
She testified she thought there was a child-safety issue. She sent Conlin another email on May 12.
"Sorry to keep bugging you but other people from the agency are really bugging me," she wrote. "They state their files say nothing about the child not being allowed to stay with mother Samantha Kematch but I do believe you told me the child is not to be in the mothers (sic) care. All I really want to know now is where the child is and for how long just so I can take her off of her father's case."
A CFS memo released at the inquiry Monday showed Kematch had Phoenix in November 2003 but took her to her godparents in January 2004 because she needed "time to set up home." Kematch visited occasionally, the note said. Steve Sinclair didn't visit at all. An April 2004 note said Kematch retrieved her daughter a month earlier. On May 13, 2004, Phoenix was officially removed from her father's social assistance payroll. When the SOR contacted Sinclair on May 17, he claimed he was still raising his child. He folded quickly when presented with the evidence.
Phoenix was added to Karl McKay's file on May 28. He filed for a deficit payment for the time Sinclair claimed to be taking care of Phoenix but Kematch and McKay actually had her.
If CFS had gone looking for the information, they would have had a clear path to the person who was getting welfare cheques to look after Phoenix. Karl McKay had her, along with a woman who was a clear and documented danger to her children.
And that was Monday's heartbreaking testimony. Yes, files were altered and more evidence of CFS malfeasance presented. But the heartbreaker for me is that Phoenix Sinclair was a money-maker for her parents and other so-called caregivers. The records show that while they provided very little actual care, they were quick to expense the system for their troubles.