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A child welfare culture of compromise

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There were two defining moments Thursday in the testimony of CFS workers at the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair. The women were challenged to explain why, in 2003, even as others were raising alarm that Phoenix was in the precarious care of her father, they downplayed the risk.

Roberta Dick took calls on potential protection issues for Winnipeg CFS. On Feb. 26, 2003, the child protection centre at the HSC called. A doctor suspected Phoenix was suffering from medical and physical neglect.

The day before, the three-year-old was taken to Children’s emergency — an object had been stuck in her nose for three months, her "godfather" said, and her father, Steven Sinclair, knew of it but failed to get it checked it out.

Further, the friend told the doctor, who prescribed antibiotics, that Steve was unlikely to give the meds to his daughter.

According to the manual Dick worked by, Phoenix should have been seen within 48 hours. Dick checked the box "low medical neglect" for response by a worker within five days.

"Maybe I should have checked that (48-hour response)," Dick said, but she was giving the assigned worker the ability to decide how soon to visit Phoenix based on their caseloads and demands, which she knew to be high.

"It was a judgment call."

Her supervisor signed off on the response time.

Intake worker Laura Forrest visited Steven Sinclair’s Magnus Avenue home within two days — for which she would be commended in later investigations of Phoenix’s case.

He was sober, but hostile, sporting a black eye and refused her services. Phoenix wasn’t at home and Forrest said she’d have to come back to see the little girl.

We’ll see about that, Sinclair responded.

Forrest made repeat efforts to see Phoenix but each time there was no answer at the door. She left her card.

The file remained open but Forrest never did see Phoenix.

But Phoenix was, according to the CFS Act, a "child in need of protection," commission counsel Sherri Walsh pointed out — neglect of medical care is caught by the definition.

Well, in need of attention, Forrest countered. To decide Phoenix was in need of protection required assessment.

Jeff Gindin, lawyer for Steven Sinclair, peppered Forrest on why she didn’t contact Steven’s friends and sisters, who often looked after the toddler.

Forrest replied that wasn’t her style. "I don’t think that’s a respectful way to work with people and I don’t think it works very well to do that." Showing up at the door is intrusive.

But, said Gindin, the best interests of Phoenix trumped Steven’s privacy.

"Not necessarily," Forrest replied, causing heads to snap to attention in the inquiry room. CFS didn’t have legal authority to provide services to Steven at that time. If you come on too strong, you just alienate families and you’re chances of getting in the door plummet.

Forrest’s last, unanswered visit to Phoenix’s home was in May.

Phoenix would be apprehended June 22 by the crisis response unit. An anonymous call was made about police breaking up a drinking party at Steven’s house. He was drunk and leaving his daughter with people who were "inappropriate." There was no food in the house. In July, CFS got a court order to take Phoenix for three months with her mother Samantha Kematch’s consent. Steven was a no-show.

Phoenix was happy and healthy — clearly she had been in someone’s good care, Forrest pointed out to the inquiry.

Regulated standards have changed, mandatory response times are prescribed as are face-to-face visits with kids. These reforms flowed from a massive investigation of the system in 2008. But caseloads are still high, and the problems of families are growing more complex. The after-hours response unit, which does emergency apprehensions, are busier today. "Calls have become more acute. There’s more gangs out there; there’s more violence out there... Poverty has taken its toll," worker Kim Hansen told the inquiry Thursday afternoon.

And so, in this reality, we should ask: How can tighter rules today really prevent workers from making what, as it’s been shown, dangerous compromises?

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