Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What about criminal charges?

No CFS worker was dismissed -- or even reprimanded

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So now we finally know.

There were no consequences when Phoenix Sinclair was failed to death by the child-welfare system. No CFS worker was fired, disciplined or reprimanded. The buck didn't stop at all.

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The inquiry into the child's death heard from Jay Rodgers, CEO of the General Authority, on Monday. He said CFS staff couldn't be held accountable for their failures because they weren't properly trained in child-welfare standards. They are now, he said, but weren't in the last years of Phoenix's life. Rodgers said it with a straight face.

Samantha Kematch and her boyfriend, Karl McKay, were imprisoned for murdering Phoenix. They killed her. But they were aided and abetted by a system so inept it couldn't keep track of a child who was at risk, but not considered enough of a risk to demand consistent, competent attention.

It's cold comfort to learn the child's slaying was considered by Rodgers to be "an opportunity for learning."

There were moments Monday when I thought Rodgers was pulling our collective legs. The neglect of duty was not the workers' fault because they weren't trained? Did you really need a standards manual to tell you when a file is opened on a child every year of her life, her mom is snake-mean and her stepfather has a history of violence, that maybe someone should watch her very closely? Isn't that common sense?

These were trained social workers, not 12-year-old babysitters.

Weeks of testimony revealed the actions of social workers who closed the child's file without seeing her, passed her file back and forth like a hot potato, destroyed their notes, didn't read the case history and did squat about the family. They were too overworked or ill-informed of their responsibilities to do their jobs. Some may have been incompetent; others did their best under the circumstances.

Rodgers said best practice would have been to see Phoenix instead of talking to Kematch in the hall and deciding to close the file. Best practice dictated detailed notes be taken every time there was contact, but they weren't. The cases kept coming in and social workers had to -- here's the word I've learned to loathe -- "prioritize."

Rodgers said he never heard directly from a social worker or supervisor who said they couldn't meet standards on a specific case. That doesn't mean it didn't happen, he clarified, just that it didn't make its way to him.

Of course it didn't. A frontline worker wasn't going to force her way up to the executive offices to confess her failure.

MGEU lawyer Trevor Ray wondered out loud if the "gravity of errors in this case" have been magnified by hindsight. What he meant was: Does this all seem so much worse because we know a child is dead? Were these offences really such a big deal?

Three independent reports were scathing in their appraisal of some CFS workers and the system in which they operated. Those workers are Ray's clients,

"The errors that were made in this case as described in those reports created risk for this little girl," Rodgers said. "We need to take them very seriously... We should take any opportunities for learning."

Ray asked if it would be unfair to discipline a worker if caseloads prevented them from meeting CFS expectations.

"I would agree with you, depending on what the nature of the performance was," Rodgers said. He was careful while testifying, agreeing with the contents of irrefutable reports, pointing to the progress that has been made in the ensuing years.

Rodgers painted a picture of chaos in CFS during Phoenix's last years. Devolution was coming and staffers were afraid of job losses. Workloads increased as they prepared files for transfer to the new aboriginal agencies. Morale was low.

It was a tough time for staff, who don't get the appreciation they deserve. But social work is like horseshoes. Close doesn't count. They weren't even close with Phoenix.

Reprimanded? Fired? There should have been charges laid.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 5, 2013 A3

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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