Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time to tell rest of story

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THE trial of two people accused of murdering five-year-old Phoenix Victoria Sinclair is all but over — the jury is about to deliberate on who is to blame for her death, a gruesome end in the cold, dirty basement of her Fisher River home. She was battered, starved, utterly debased as a human being.
  The only kindness she felt came from her stepbroth­ers who tried to sneak her bread crumbs or give her a little comfort.

Both parents revealed themselves to be unworthy of the title, admitting to having beaten the child, but accusing each other of dealing the fatal blow. The question of how, with numerous contacts with child welfare authorities, Phoenix Sinclair was left to her unimaginable fate remains unresolved. There has been a review of her case, conducted more than two years ago, but it remains secret. No one from the child welfare agency involved appeared at the trial to explain their role.

The review's recommendations for fixing the things that went wrong have been released, broadly hinting at many problems that permitted Phoenix to slip through the system that is supposed to protect children in danger. Indeed, the trial was told that on March 5, 2005, Child and Family Services got a tip that something was wrong. On March 9, the mother refused to let the worker in and that was that: case closed, literally, for the third time in Phoenix's life. Three months later, she was dead.

The recommendations released in 2006 by Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh were alarming. They speak of the need for manageable workloads for staff, appropriate risk assessments to be undertaken when a child is in need of protection, the necessity of social workers and supervisors keeping detailed records, home studies of foster families, the necessity of provincial standards to guide the work of agencies and to ensure workers are trained in recognizing abuse, in risk assessment and counselling. Finally, the review suggested that child welfare authorities have a policy on conflict of interest "for staff dealing with high-risk situations involving relatives."

Manitobans are left to piece together how the system failed little Phoenix. Some of the recommendations are all too familiar -- the review released in July of the death of Gage Guimond, whose great aunt sits awaiting trial on a murder charge, contained recommendations that were hauntingly similar.

But each death is unique, and uniquely tragic. Phoenix was murdered but the child welfare system fatally failed her. The fuller story of why she died needs to be told. Mr. Mackintosh must release the review and give a full account as to how the issues that contributed to the tragedy have been fixed.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 9, 2008 A12

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