Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Phoenix inquiry; next step

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The life and death of little Phoenix Sinclair could have been right out of the book for social researchers, and maybe for Winnipeggers who feel they've seen this sorry story play out before. But some really basic details of her short life -- she was murdered at the age of five by her mother and stepfather -- defy the litany of risk factors found in studies and challenge stereotypes of those who think they know this tragedy too well.

Phoenix was born to parents who immediately said they were ill-equipped, and unwilling to parent. But babies have a way of turning the heart. They decided to keep the little girl born on April 23, 2000.

CFS took Phoenix into care. Both her father, Steve Sinclair, and mother, Samantha Kematch, had been in care of CFS and shared common risk factors: substance abuse, hostility to authorities, poverty. CFS seized Samantha's first baby. The agency worked with them to assess competency, help them regain custody of Phoenix and parent her properly.

Still, the risks remained. But it's also evident Sinclair was a loving father. He would call in family and friends to care for Phoenix when he couldn't. Kematch was not a good parent. Those who knew her saw her as distant and hostile to Phoenix, and harsh in disciplining her. CFS believed she posed a risk to Phoenix.

Phoenix grew from a healthy baby to a healthy, happy, bright toddler, said those who cared for her.

But if a social scientist armed with the studies of childhood and developmental risks had clinically evaluated Phoenix's life to this point. The chart would show odds stacked against her well-being, as one such researcher told the inquiry. Indeed, she might have dropped out of school and become a teen mom on welfare with addictions problems. Just like Kematch.

Much has been learned about risk factors and the toxic effect of stressors in a child's life, particularly things over which a child has no control, such as poverty, maltreatment, poor housing, etc. But what social science cannot predict is who among the herd will follow the herd, or chart their own path. There are many who defy the odds.

Case in point: Wes McKay, the foster father convicted with Kematch in Phoenix's grisly and tortured 2005 death, had a daughter who, raised by her grandparents, was on her own at 15, pregnant at 16. But she sought and successfully used CFS assistance so she could keep custody of her baby. She had only good things to say about CFS.

That defied the odds too: Everyone else in Phoenix's life had an abiding distrust of child welfare workers and did everything they could to keep them out, often to Phoenix's detriment.

The commission wound up its hearing of testimony on Thursday. Its report is due in December, with recommendations for reforms to avoid other tragedies.

A couple of themes are evident. Tasking CFS workers with the work of both trying to help families and protecting children's safety understandably breeds distrust of CFS among parents and in communities. Another, entirely separate agency needs to be established to reach out to prevent family breakdown.

Poverty, widely seen as a common denominator for putting children at risk early, should not be equated with fate. Phoenix was a happy, healthy and "poor" toddler, even after her mother and father split up. Her mental and physical health and her life were endangered when Kematch took control of her. A closer look may show a parent's ability to nurture is the greater influence on a child's development and future.

What is it that sets children -- and the adults they become -- apart from the herd of those who share risk factors? The testimony of Wes McKay's daughter was unusual among those in Phoenix's community of friends and family. Why did she feel she could reach out to CFS for help and successfully parent her babies?

Those answers may be foundational to building a better way to keep children from falling into the care of CFS, where most, the statistics show, will do very poorly indeed.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2013 A16

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