The inquiry into the 2005 death of Phoenix Sinclair heard testimony for the first time Monday about the notorious "walk of shame" alluded to since public hearings began in September.
The "walk of shame" was the phrase CFS workers gave to files that bounced back to the crisis-response unit after a crisis-response-unit worker initially referred the file to the CFS intake unit.
"I had heard this from a number of staff," said crisis-response unit worker Shelley Willox (formerly Wiebe), who testified at the inquiry when it resumed from the holiday break.
The province ordered the inquiry in March 2011 to find out how Phoenix fell through Manitoba's child-welfare safety net, what circumstances if any contributed to her death and why it took so long to be discovered. In 2006, her remains were discovered buried at Fisher River First Nation's dump. In 2008, her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl "Wes" McKay, were convicted of murdering the five-year-old.
On Monday, Willox testified she worked for Winnipeg Child and Family Services' crisis-response unit in December 2004. That's when a hospital social worker contacted CFS to report Kematch had given birth to her fourth baby and to alert CFS about her previous involvement with child welfare, including having her first baby, a boy, taken into care as a permanent ward.
Willox's role as a child-response-unit worker was to triage cases reported to CFS and decide what and when to do something about them. She decided that with the stress of a new baby, a new adult in the house -- the newborn's father, McKay -- and Phoenix's tender age of four, someone should check on the family within 48 hours.
She referred the file to the intake unit for a thorough investigation. Her supervisor, however, referred the file back to her without explanation. Willox said she was told to try and contact Kematch herself and see how she was doing.
Willox later learned her supervisors were told the intake unit refused to take the Kematch file and it ended up on "the walk of shame" -- back with Willox in the crisis-response unit. Willox said if there was no child-protection concern, she was to close the file.
Willox's supervisor, Diva Faria, talked about the "walk of shame" in a 2006 internal review shown to the inquiry Monday. In it, she described how supervisors at the crisis-response unit and the intake unit fought over whether files should be opened.
"Sometimes the debate was so heated among supervisors that program managers had to be involved in resolving them," the report said.
Willox said that at that time in December 2004, she didn't know she was given back the file. She said her supervisor, Faria, told her to try and contact Kematch herself.
When Willox called but got no answer and Kematch didn't respond to her messages, her supervisor told her to contact the public health nurse. The nurse would have visited Kematch and her new baby at their home.
But the nurse, Mary Wu, wouldn't offer any information, Willox said. Wu told her she was advised at recent training sessions that because of the Personal Health Information Act, she couldn't disclose that information without Kematch's permission.
Willox said she told Wu child-protection concerns and the CFS Act trump privacy legislation and any adult with concerns about the safety of a child has a duty to report it.
She said Wu knew that, and Willox said she would report the matter to her supervisor to contact Wu's supervisor at the Health Department.
If Willox had done more checking, though, she could have found a concern in the home -- McKay himself.
CFS electronic records showed a criminal history of domestic violence and alcohol abuse and McKay's refusal to address either.