Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Warning of 'crisis' at CFS during Phoenix's short life

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At the time Phoenix Sinclair started slipping through Manitoba's child-welfare safety net, the seams of labour and management relations at Winnipeg Child and Family Services were fraying, the inquiry into her death heard from both sides Monday.

Union leaders in December 2002 wrote an urgent letter to then-family services minister Drew Caldwell about the "present crisis" in child welfare.

"We didn't have confidence the issues were being heard or attended to, so we went to the minister," Rob Wilson, a shop steward and a supervisor who signed the letter, told the inquiry Monday.

The letter cited concerns about workload impacting the safety of clients and the professionalism of workers. It said management refused to release the findings of a focus-group study at the agency until it was pressured to do so. It warned "vacancy management" was taking a toll on workers as positions were not being filled and the number of CFS cases soared.

The letter put the government "on notice" that "children and families who require protection services are at risk."

Around the time the letter was written, Phoenix would have been 21/2 years old and being cared for most of the time by Kim Edwards and Rohan Stephenson, friends of her father, Steve Sinclair.

That winter, she got a little piece of Styrofoam stuck up her nose. When it festered and began to hurt, Stephenson took her to an emergency room to have it removed in February 2003 and wouldn't identify himself.

The doctor said the object had likely been there for months. CFS was notified, as it was several times in Phoenix's short life. Roberta Dick took the call from the hospital's child-protection unit expressing its concern Phoenix's health had been neglected, and the "godfather's" concern Phoenix's dad would not give the toddler her antibiotics.

Dick testified earlier she knew intake workers had high caseloads, so she recommended a five-day response time instead of 48 hours for someone to check on the little girl. As far as CFS knew, Phoenix was living with her dad, Steve Sinclair, after her mother left in the summer of 2001.

Intake worker Laura Forrest visited his home several times in 2003. Sinclair avoided her. Forrest testified she had a high caseload and never saw Phoenix.

"There was pressure at all points of intake to close files," Wilson said Monday. He went from being a supervisor in 2002 to an assistant program manager from 2003 to 2008, supervising the supervisors on the front lines.

The front-line challenges were set against a backdrop of change and anxiety, the inquiry has heard. Workers were worried about their jobs with devolution and downsizing as aboriginal agencies were established.

Wilson said the workers didn't like the way CFS was managing change and wrote to the minister to complain and warn it was affecting services.

The chief executive officer of CFS at the time testified Monday she didn't receive a copy of the letter. Linda Trigg was seconded from New Directions, another major social-welfare agency, to "hold down the fort" at CFS as it prepared for devolution.

She was also "tidying up aspects of program reorganization" during her time as CEO from 2001 to 2004 and was well aware of problems at the agency -- but not the rift with organized labour.

"Neither bargaining unit had spoken to me about a deterioration in labour-management relations," Trigg said.

The clinical psychologist responded to the union's letter to the minister by writing her own. The union leaders' letter said child-in-care days soared by 22,000 from the previous year when Trigg learned it was more like 10,000 -- a two per cent increase. Sick-day stats didn't indicate the agency was functioning feebly, either, she said.

The focus-group report was held back because of "humiliating" comments about named supervisors, she said. The province ordered the agency not to fill a percentage of vacant jobs, but front-line workers, such as those who would've come into contact with Phoenix, were not affected, Trigg said.

Phoenix was murdered in 2005 by her mother Samantha Klematch and stepfather Karl McKay.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 29, 2013 B4

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