Kathy Peterson Epps is a slight woman, so slight as to look as though a limb would snap if you were to bump into her. Today, at the inquiry into the murder of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair by her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, Epps’ frailty got the best of her and she had to leave the witness stand mid-morning.
Epps is/was a social worker with Winnipeg CFS, which had care and control of Phoenix’s file since her birth on April 23, 2000. Epps is on medical leave from her job; she is clearly very ill. But she has stood in at the inquiry for a second day now with heroic form, clearly answering questions put to her with as best a recall possible for events that happened 12 years and more ago.
Epps was a social worker since 1990 in the northwest Winnipeg unit. In fact, she was Phoenix’s dad’s social worker, almost from the start, when he was taken into care at about the age of 10 in 1989. Steve Sinclair’s parents were alcoholics and he and his sister were neglected, often going hungry. Sinclair had issues, lots of them – prone to anger, aggression and one social worker even said he was such a risk that he should not be left with dependent children. Epps disagreed with that. What she saw was a young man, still the quiet and sensitive boy she monitored until 1997 (when she left the unit on an earlier medical leave). In 1998 when another worker wrote a case summary as Steve was "aged out" of the system at 18, Epps believed Steve was also bewildered and angry at the prospect of being shoved out into the world on his own, with no one to care for him.
Much of her testimony on Monday dealt with her knowledge of the Sinclair family because she was the worker assigned to Steve and his siblings. She said Steve didn’t talk much, rarely would open up and although the girls would keep in touch with her after she was no longer their worker, Steve didn’t call.
But in 2001, Epps was back at social working with Winnipeg CFS and landed with a North End unit which had responsibility for Phoenix, the baby of Steve and Samantha Kematch, who had Phoenix when she was 19 (and, as we know, would kill Phoenix with her then boyfriend Karl McKay in 2005.)
Epps was back in the picture, picking up the file after Delores Chief-Abigosis left the case.
Like so much of the story heard to date in the agency’s handling of the Phoenix Sinclair case, Epps appeared to believe Steve would make a good parent. When she met him, informally in July 2001 as a favour, he was looking for help to get full custody of Phoenix and newborn Echo, a four-month-old who would die within the next two weeks as it happened. Samantha Kematch, described as "out of control" by Steve, was out of the house, having hooked up again with a former boyfriend who was the father of a first child, seized by CFS.
Epps heard Phoenix was spending time with a friend of Steve’s, that Steve was charged by Samantha with assault, that Steve was afraid of what Samantha, in her state, would do to the kids.
Epps wrote a memo to Delores Chief-Abigosis, apprising her of the development in the case. Chief-Abigosis, the inquiry has learned, had only one personal meeting with Sinclair and Kematch, in February of 2001, despite the requirements to have regular contact. They had no phone, were not in their apartment in other attempts to contact them. They had no family support worker, as they did in late 2000 when Phoenix was returned to them.
By mid-July, Abigosis was gone; Epps got the file. Although she had seen that the home and the "marriage" of Phoenix’s parents was in turmoil, although baby Echo would die July 15 of respiratory infection, although Steve was resistant to contact… the agency considered the file low-risk, Phoenix not to be at risk and no reason to continue trying to "service" the family.
Epps closed the Sinclair file – as was the intent when it was given to her -- in 2001, would formally finish the paper work, called the summary, in early 2002 as such matters were low in priority for workers juggling more than 30 cases in a challenging area of high abuse, high risk, high addiction and high on the scale of dysfunctional families.
Epp speaks with a strong, honest voice. You can hear the compassion in her and can imagine the care with which she would handle the vulnerable, broken kids who came into her life, over and over again.
She is, however, now a physical shadow, an impossibly thin and small one, of a woman. I don’t know her medical ailment. I suspect whatever is the pain, though, that it must pale in comparison to the mental anguish this case, and perhaps so many others she handled in her career, has brought to her life.