ON Saturday, March 11, 2006, RCMP in Fisher Branch and Winnipeg arrested a man and a woman in connection with the death of a little girl on the Fisher River First Nation.
The arrests were announced in a routine police bulletin, but the result was explosive. It turned the already-stressed Child and Family Services system in Manitoba upside down and raised the question of whether the government's much-touted process to give control over the child welfare to aboriginal communities had just gone horribly wrong.
Phoenix Victoria Sinclair was born April 23, 2000 in Winnipeg, the first of two daughters who would be born to Samantha Kematch and Nelson Sinclair.
Phoenix was immediately taken away from her parents by Winnipeg Child and Family Services and placed in foster care.
From that point on the little girl was in and out of care on a regular basis. She would be returned to her mother or father only to have them leave her with another caregiver for days, sometimes weeks or even months at a time.
Months would pass without a single visit by a social worker.
The last contact CFS had with her was in March 2005. Sources close to the case say an anonymous tip was made to child protection authorities alleging Phoenix was being abused.
Just over a month before Phoenix's fifth birthday, social workers acted on the complaint and visited the home in Winnipeg where she was then living with her mother. But they didn't see the little girl and didn't insist on seeing her. A few weeks later her file was closed.
Three months later she was dead.
Police records show the little girl's final weeks of life were almost too horrific to contemplate. She spent them in a home on the Fisher River First Nation where she was allegedly beaten with a broom stick, shot with a BB gun, locked in a pen and denied food and water.
On June 11, 2005, Phoenix died on the cold, cement floor in the basement of her home in Fisher River. Her body was allegedly wrapped in plastic and buried in the woods near the reserve.
It would be nine months before her death came to light. And that happened only because her 12-year-old stepbrother had the courage to come forward.
Police spent the next several weeks searching for her remains.
Kematch and her boyfriend, Karl McKay, are charged with first degree murder with a trial date yet to be set. They are presumed innocent.
As the details of Phoenix's short life and horrific death emerged, the child welfare system and the provincial government faced a tough question: How could a child who'd been in care die, and nobody know for nine months?
Her case sparked three reviews resulting in 289 recommendations.
Phoenix's case file was closed at the same time as off-reserve aboriginal child welfare cases in Winnipeg were being transferred to aboriginal child welfare agencies, a process known as devolution.
It was a crazy time and social workers were racing to write case summaries and decide which cases should be transferred and which could be closed.
Despite that, the government has steadfastly denied devolution played any role in Phoenix's case because her file was never transferred.
Tory MLA Mavis Taillieu, who was her party's family services critic until just recently, said the province was so adamant devolution didn't have anything to do with Phoenix falling through the crack it made her wonder if it wasn't protesting just a little too much.
Nobody was suggesting devolution was wholly to blame, says Taillieu, but the province seemed to absolve devolution completely without possibly having investigated the question thoroughly.
"They didn't want to make it an aboriginal issue so they were pretty quick to say it had nothing to do with it," says Taillieu. "Excuse me. A child died. You better find out why."
Devolution was more than 20 years in the making. It began to form in the early 1980s when the federal government and aboriginal leaders signed an agreement to establish aboriginal child protection agencies across the province to look after kids and families living on reserves.
All other kids, aboriginal or not, continued to be cared for by non-aboriginal CFS agencies.
In 1985, associate chief justice Edwin Kimmelman released his report studying the effect of adopting aboriginal kids into non-aboriginal homes. He called it "cultural genocide" and recommended aboriginal child welfare services be extended to kids living off-reserve.
The same recommendation was made in 1991 in the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry. But the idea sat dormant until the NDP were elected in 1999 and Premier Gary Doer made implementing it a priority.
Less than two months after the 1999 election, the province established a commission to begin implementing what was known as the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry -- Child Welfare Initiative.
LEGISLATION was passed in 2003 creating four child welfare authorities instead of just one central authority. One would serve southern first nations, one northern first nations, one Metis, and one would serve all other kids.
Each authority would contract with specific child welfare agencies -- most of which already existed -- to actually carry out the services of child welfare. The agencies' role includes investigating abuse and neglect complaints, taking kids into care and working with families to provide help so they could keep their kids.
The off-reserve cases -- in total, more than 7,082 files -- began transferring in November 2003 and the process was completed in 2005.
It involved not only transferring files and kids and families but also social workers. Aboriginal agencies didn't have enough staff so non-aboriginal social workers were seconded temporarily until more aboriginal social workers could be trained and hired.
Elsie Flette, CEO of the Southern First Nations Child and Family Services Authority, says devolution was the best thing to ever happen in Manitoba.
"It was absolutely the right thing to do," she says.
Now aboriginal kids are dealt with by social workers who know their traditions and understand that in aboriginal culture kids aren't just a member of a nuclear family but of a community as a whole, she says.
Flette says the numbers alone back the case for devolution.
According to Statistics Canada, aboriginals account for about 15 per cent of the Manitoba population, and about 25 per cent of Manitobans under the age of 19. But over 75 per cent of the kids in the child welfare system are aboriginal.
On March 31 of this year, there were 7,241 kids in care in Manitoba. Of those 5,623 were aboriginal, including 574 Metis.
And when you break down the numbers even further, argues Flette, it shows that aboriginal kids are yanked out of their homes at a much higher rate when CFS gets involved.
Flette says four out of every five aboriginal kids transferred during devolution were in care. Only one in five were still with their parents who were receiving help from CFS to be good parents.
With non-aboriginal kids, says Flette it was the exact opposite.
"We looked at that and said 'that's what we've been saying all along, that you don't work with our families," she says. "You rush in and you take kids and you make them permanent wards. On the non-aboriginal side you're working with the families."
Dr. Charles Ferguson, director of the Manitoba Child Protection Centre and a nationally-sought after expert in child abuse, says his attitude towards devolution is "very positive."
"That transition was not without complications but I think on balance it worked out," said Ferguson.
Devolution certainly didn't cause all of the system's woes - the system has been muddling through crises for decades. But even Flette acknowledges devolution didn't occur without mishap.
"We've got some challenges," she says. "Devolution we knew was going to destabilize the system. There is no way you can do a big change like that and not have that happen."
Manitoba Children's Advocate Billie Schibler is also a firm believer in devolution but she says her biggest regret is the system didn't make an effort to deal with long-standing problems like high caseloads and a predisposition to take a child into care rather than work with families to make them more stable.
Devolution was going to uproot even a solid system and Manitoba's system was anything but solid when the changes began.
Schibler, herself a former social worker, said she knows how overburdened the system is because her own office is backlogged, understaffed and underfunded.
"We are trying to help support the system in its changes," she said. "But we're a small office. We need a lot more resources. People come to us as a place of last resort. We shouldn't have wait times."
Schibler said her office should be able to respond immediately when someone calls about a child who is potentially in a crisis. Instead it's often about a week.
"That's unacceptable," she said.
And she says if her office can't keep up, it's a sign of just how overburdened the system is as a whole.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2007
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