Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Missing in action

The supervisors' notes in the Phoenix Sinclair file might have answered a lot of questions about what went wrong. So... what happened to them?

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The Phoenix Sinclair inquiry was rocked this week by the revelation that all the supervisory notes on the family's child-welfare file have vanished. Four supervisors have testified; none of their notes exists.

The first supervisor, Andy Orobko, admitted he took his notes home with him when he left Child and Family Services employment, a clear violation of practice. During his testimony, he downplayed their importance. He destroyed the notes in 2010, he said, four years after the province announced its inquiry and a year before it began.

If Orobko had kept the notes he lifted from the office, they would have been the only such records in existence.

Former supervisors Angie Balan, Lorna Hanson and Heather Edinborough testified supervisory notes form an important part of any family's child-welfare records. The women expressed surprise their notes, which documented supervisory meetings, case recommendations and personnel issues, have gone missing.

The notes may become the inquiry's version of the infamous 181/2 missing minutes of a taped conversation between U.S. President Richard Nixon and his chief of staff, used to determine the president's role in covering up the Watergate scandal.

The Department of Family Services has admitted the notes did exist, are missing and were perhaps destroyed. Privately, two lawyers present at the inquiry told me there will be fireworks as the notes issue continues to be explored in upcoming testimony. There should be, just as there must be proof these notes weren't deliberately removed to sideline or impair the work of the inquiry.

There was mighty opposition to this inquiry taking place, both from the union representing the social workers and from the lawyers representing child-welfare authorities. The latter demanded full transcripts of interviews done with witnesses, delaying the inquiry.

It has become increasingly clear why those charged with protecting social workers would have preferred much of the evidence not be heard. The inquiry has heard the sad story of Samantha Kematch, Steve Sinclair and their two daughters is far from unique. Poverty, family violence and substance abuse are the backdrop to many of their cases. It has also heard that there were significant gaps in the service provided to the family, that the terms of a service contract weren't met and that there was a rapid turnover of supervisors and social workers involved with the file.

Without the supervisors' notes and in the absence of reliable notes kept by at least one worker, a complete picture of what happened in the earliest years of the child's life remain elusive.

None of the supervisors remembers the social workers complaining their workloads were too high to handle the Sinclair file adequately. If they had, that would have been in the notes.

Social worker Dolores Chief-Abigosis testified under oath she was attending university full time at the same time she was working at CFS full time, something that would seem impossible.

Lorna Hanson, one of the social worker's two supervisors, was asked if she knew Chief-Abigosis committed to being in two places at the same time.

She did not, and that would have concerned her. But if they'd ever discussed it, the proof would have been in her notes and those are missing.

(Thursday, word came from Chief-Abigosis's lawyer that the claim of full-time university attendance may have been "inaccurate.")

Documentation is a skill that comes more easily to some than others, Hanson said, but she expected everyone to do a proper job. She considered herself a little obsessive on the subject.

"Document, document, document, that was my mantra," she said. "The fact that my notes are missing is an issue for me, because I depend on them. It's been 12 years."

She testified that when she began working as a supervisor, she put her notes into a binder that was kept in her office. Later, she put them in sealed envelopes that said "supervisor's notes" and attached them to the case file.

Angela Balan, who supervised the case while Hanson was on medical and then maternity leave, testified she had biweekly meetings with every worker to see how their cases were proceeding.

"The necessary contacts were not maintained," Balan said of Chief-Abigosis's work. She could not say how that happened, because her supervisory notes have not been located. She left them in binders in the office for Hanson upon her return from maternity leave.

Gone. All gone.

The Phoenix Sinclair inquiry is an opportunity to clearly state how the child welfare system failed one child, what changes have been made to improve it and how we can move forward to protect children who will, of necessity, be taken into care. What we've heard so far hasn't been encouraging.

Until someone provides an explanation of where those missing files ended up and whose hands were on them, this inquiry has a stink on it that can't be washed off.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 A6

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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