Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Worker visited Phoenix's home as 'backup' only

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A veteran front-line social worker who accompanied a colleague to the home of Phoenix Sinclair said he wasn't there to check on the little girl but to make sure his partner was safe.

Bill Leskiw testified Wednesday at the inquiry into the girl's death that Christopher Zalevich was the primary worker on the case, and he was just there for "backup."

"My role is to be there primarily for safety reasons," said Leskiw, who still works in the crisis-response unit with Zalevich.

"I've had a number of serious events happen to me by myself," Leskiw said. "A backup person would've been very helpful to have."

He said Zalevich asked him to go with him to investigate a complaint Samantha Kematch was abusing her four-year-old daughter, Phoenix, and may have been locking her in a bedroom.

They went to the inner-city apartment on March 9, 2005, and spoke to Kematch in the hallway. They left without seeing Phoenix, the inquiry heard. Not long after that, the child was taken to Fisher River First Nation by her mom and stepfather, Karl "Wes" McKay, where they tortured and killed her later that year. Her death wasn't discovered until 2006. Kematch and McKay were convicted of her murder in 2008. The province ordered the inquiry in 2011 to learn how the little girl fell through Manitoba's child-welfare safety net.

In March 2005, Zalevich and Leskiw were the last Winnipeg Child and Family Services workers to have any involvement with the Phoenix Sinclair file when she was alive. There is no record during their visit Zalevich asked to see Phoenix or why Kematch had a lock on the bedroom door. They left and Zalevich recommended closing the file.

Commission counsel Derek Olson asked Leskiw why he didn't ask those questions.

"As a backup worker, I wouldn't go over the head of a primary worker in a situation like that," he said. "It might have made the situation worse (rather) than better." He said the primary worker has more information about a case and there may be a good reason for not asking some questions. As the backup worker, it wasn't his role to ask the questions, said Leskiw, who can't recall the visit and relied on Zalevich's recording of it.

Kematch admitted to them she yelled at Phoenix and agreed with Zalevich that having a lock on the outside of the bedroom door was unsafe. They saw the baby she had with McKay, who appeared happy and healthy. When the social workers got back to their office, Zalevich recommended closing the file on Phoenix without having seen her.

"If you were the primary worker, would you have wanted to see Phoenix?" Olson asked Leskiw.

"I can't speculate," he said.

Today, the rules have changed and Zalevich couldn't have recommended closing such a file, the inquiry heard.

After Phoenix's tragic case came to light, a worker now has to see a child suspected of being abused or neglected and find out if the adults she lives with have had problems with CFS in the past.

McKay had a criminal history of domestic violence CFS had on file. That fact wasn't included in the information Zalevich received when he was assigned the case, he testified earlier. A CFS worker cut and pasted the case history from the electronic files, but missed the part about the last CFS intervention and McKay entering the picture, the inquiry heard earlier.

After-hours and crisis-response-unit workers are no longer allowed to cut and paste histories but have to create their own, Kris Saxberg, the lawyer for several child-welfare authorities, told the inquiry.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 17, 2013 A4

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