Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

CFS workers cannot wear two hats

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Steven Sinclair's short time before the inquiry reviewing the death of his little girl gave ample proof of how inept our system can be at caring for families and protecting vulnerable tots.

It was clear early in his testimony Wednesday that Sinclair, the father of Phoenix, who was killed by her mother in 2005, had little use for child and family services agencies, their workers or their advice. This was a young man, at the time, who grew up as a ward of the system, bounced around foster homes and, while he had some good to say about his child welfare worker, Kathy Peterson Epps, recalled that he didn't trust her much either.

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Epps was the one who moved him from foster home to foster home.

"Let me take you away from your family," Sinclair, 32, replied curtly to a lawyer's question.

He had reason not to trust the system. Apprehended at 11, he was denied visits with the mother he still loves. A family member was badly abused as a ward. Social workers have told the inquiry that Sinclair -- by most accounts, a gentle, articulate and thoughtful man -- was not unusual in his experience and distrust of the system.

And once he, at 19, had Phoenix, in April 2000, Sinclair was determined to save her from that same system.

He recognized he and his common-law wife, Samantha Kematch, 18, needed help. They put Phoenix into temporary care and set about doing all that Winnipeg CFS asked of them, including taking parenting classes -- a second time for Sinclair, who helped his sister with her kids.

It was apparent to everyone that it was Sinclair, not Kematch, who had the best potential to parent. Kematch was hostile, angry and had a deeply troubled past as a ward herself. She had little interest in being a mother.

Technically, the case appeared to be moving along to social workers who had little time to impose themselves on Sinclair and Kematch. CFS came in and out as it got reports that things in the house were going wrong. The couple separated in a maelstrom that involved alcohol, police and assault charges.

Sinclair loved Phoenix, was determined to be her father, but, as we know from the evidence, he was incapable of parenting. A single dad, he was binge-drinking to insensibility, sometimes while Phoenix was in the home, but usually he called in surrogate parents -- his sister or his friend Kim Edwards.

And he was working to keep CFS away.

Social workers have told the inquiry the same thing. It is very difficult to get parents to trust them, despite the fact they also are responsible for supporting those struggling to give their kids stable, healthy homes.

Some of the workers assigned to Phoenix's case fell down badly in their duty. And supervisors who testified on the work of social workers admit it wasn't always up to snuff. Workers were juggling too many cases, too much work and, by comparison, Phoenix and her family were usually "low risk."

Mostly, though, it is evident that those workers were profoundly conflicted in their duty. The CFS Act seeks to maintain or reunite families while protecting children. It yokes social workers with the tasks of assessing risk to children while convincing parents they are there for them, too.

The act now makes it plain the safety of the child is the paramount concern, but it is the same CFS worker who still tracks risk and works to help the family.

Many parents, the inquiry has been told, overcome the odds -- poverty, addictions, troubled childhoods and histories of being in care themselves. CFS workers are trained to look for strengths and work on potential.

In the case of Steven Sinclair, social workers put too much faith in him.

Winnipeg CFS was lulled into a false belief that the file could be closed. Indeed, the last social worker to have had care of Sinclair's file closed it shortly after expressing misgivings about whether he was capable of going it alone as a parent.

"We placed too much emphasis on what we saw as people's strengths," supervisor Heather Edinborough told the inquiry last week, conceding that social worker Stan Williams underplayed Sinclair's shortcomings.

This father couldn't parent. Social workers who are compelled to look for the best in people overlooked far too many weaknesses and squandered opportunities to put a tot badly in need of a saviour in someone else's care, permanently.

Instead, Kematch came back into her life and Phoenix died.

The CFS Act has to separate the work of family support and child protection so both goals get a fighting chance, not the hobbled efforts of workers conflicted and confounded in their jobs.

catherine.mitchell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 6, 2012 A16

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