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Hold social workers to account

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Rohan Stephenson is a little worked over by life, but he's articulate and focussed. Right now, he wants child welfare agencies and those tasked with protecting children to be accountable for their work.

On Thursday, Stephenson took the system to task for its handling of Phoenix Sinclair, a little girl murdered by her mother after spending time in agency care.

Phoenix also spent a lot of her life in Stephenson's care. It is his observation of how Winnipeg Child and Family Services watched over the little girl, or didn't, that makes him wonder why social workers aren't held professionally accountable.

How can social workers at a government agency not have to be licensed, not have to register professionally and be held to standards such that anyone with evidence of wrongdoing could complain? he asked after testifying Thursday at the inquiry into Phoenix's death.

How is it that social workers, against policy, can shred their notes on a child's file -- two supervisors at Winnipeg CFS did that -- and not be taken to task? he wondered. He stressed he is not blaming anyone at CFS for the fact Phoenix, at five years old, was degraded, caged and beaten to death by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and the woman's boyfriend, Karl McKay.

He carries guilt that he, in 2004, handed Phoenix over to Kematch for what he thought would be a short visit. She never came back.

Stephenson and his wife, Kim Edwards, began caring for Phoenix, born in 2000, at their Selkirk Avenue home, at first occasionally and then frequently after her mother left in 2001 and her father, Steve Sinclair, was drinking hard.

"There was never a time when she was not spending any time at my place," he testified.

In late 2003 and 2004, Phoenix was living with Stephenson most of the time. He and Edwards separated the Christmas prior and he was living with his sons, 11 and 13 years old. And he hung on for dear life to Phoenix.

"She was great, she was wonderful, she was fun," he said, breaking down. "She was incredible."

But he was working night shifts. The kids watched Phoenix at night and took turns showing up late for school until he got home to watch the toddler. "I was exhausted," he testified.

He never told CFS any of this, had little contact with it, and he would not ask for help, certain the agency would take Phoenix away. When, in 2003, the agency made his home a "place of safety," and when Kim applied to have the house licensed for foster care, they said she was still living there.

In 2004, he told the agency he didn't want financial support.

The agreements he signed had clauses that Phoenix would not go to the care of anyone else without agency approval. A letter noted CFS's concerns about her parents and that she shouldn't go back to Steve without a risk assessment, but Stephenson allowed both of them to take Phoenix for a spell.

CFS never checked the accuracy of what he told them, never checked on Phoenix in his home, a fact remarked upon by numerous reviews after Phoenix's death that criticized the agency's work.

He said he, like all of those "marginalized people" involved with Phoenix, didn't care about official dictates. They distrusted CFS -- it took children away.

"Everything I did, I did to keep her because I wanted to keep her safe because I loved her."

Stephenson was unaware Kematch was a risk to Phoenix. He would later tell police that while he had heard she was abusive to Phoenix, he thought Kematch was cleaning herself up.

In April 2004, she showed up with her mother, who said Phoenix should be raised by family.

"I was reluctant, but I was also exhausted and Phoenix wanted to go, so I let her."

Stephenson has beaten himself up about that day.

"So I am a liar and they (CFS) were incompetent and 15,000 other things came together and now Phoenix is dead."

He still wonders why social workers aren't held accountable for their work, or lack of it.

The Manitoba government is alone in Canada, in fact, in not controlling who calls themselves a registered social worker.

After three reviews of Phoenix's death, the province is just now looking at a professional college to regulate social workers. This inquiry should ask what took it so long.

catherine.mitchell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2012 A13

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