Broken childhoods

Unless systemic problems are fixed, expect more tragedies like Phoenix's to occur


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Phoenix Sinclair was born healthy.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/02/2014 (3163 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Phoenix Sinclair was born healthy.

Though her mother hid the pregnancy under baggy clothes, got no prenatal care and was largely indifferent to the little girl from the moment she was born, there was nothing obviously wrong with Phoenix’s brain or body that would have condemned her to anything other than a happy, productive, normal life.

Instead, she became the symbol of everything amiss with the province’s child welfare system and the profound collapse of aboriginal families.

Winnipeg Free Press

Though Phoenix was born healthy, her environment was toxic. A mountain of evidence suggests that environment doomed her to be like her mother, destined for a life of abuse, welfare, teen pregnancy, addictions and school failure, continuing the cycle of violence and sadness that hobbles many of the province’s indigenous people.

Since her death was discovered in 2006, the social workers who allowed her to disappear into months of horrific abuse have been pilloried. The child welfare system — everything from its mandate to its computer software — has been dissected, critiqued and overhauled, and more changes will come from Commissioner Ted Hughes’ inquiry report released a week ago. The province’s various family services ministers have been equally pilloried. Phoenix’s mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl Wesley McKay, have been sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder.

What has not been explored fully are the oft-mentioned root causes of profound family failure, the kind that saw a child bounced from unstable homes to an abusive one, the kind that blunted her mother’s love and her father’s ability to cope, the kind that allowed adults to torture a child to death and Manitobans to turn a blind eye.

“The responsibility to protect children cannot fall solely on the shoulders of the child welfare system,” wrote Hughes. “The evidence heard throughout this inquiry leads to a clear conclusion: This is a responsibility that belongs to the entire community.”

The cycle of failure that has gripped generations of aboriginal families is rooted in poverty, plain and simple, and amplified by an overly-academic word most Canadians haven’t come to grips with yet: colonialism. That’s the legacy of land theft, cultural suppression, family dislocation, residential schools and the erosion of indigenous institutions that still persists. The legacy is easy to see in one remarkable statistic: roughly 87 per cent of all kids in care in Manitoba are aboriginal. Hughes called that figure “unconscionable.”

At the current rate, by 2030 there will be 22,000 kids in care in Manitoba. The child welfare system that now receives nearly half a billion dollars a year could end up costing nearly $1 billion annually. Failure to act has even more costly implications for crime, health care, education, welfare and our collective moral condition.

“It can be much easier to arouse public outrage in the wake of the death of a child than to stimulate public demand for significant and long-term reform aimed at prevention,” wrote Hughes.

Here are some of the core problems we need to prevent, and some sense of how to do it:



Any journalist who has knocked on any door in the North End has encountered this question: “Are you CFS?”

The mistrust of the child welfare system trumps mistrust of the media. It’s a hostility born of generations of white people taking aboriginal kids away to residential schools, to far-away adoptive families during the ’60s scoop or into the overwhelming bureaucracy of foster care.

That profound fear of social workers was a theme throughout the Hughes report, and threatens to derail any attempts to reform the child welfare system from one where kids are apprehended to one where parents are given the help they need to get healthy and keep their kids.

Phoenix’s family had significant experience with social workers. Her father, Steve Sinclair, was taken into care when he was eight because of rampant violence and alcoholism at home. He lived with three different foster families and by the time he “aged out” of the system, he was an alcoholic himself. His parenting role models were the ones he saw on TV. One of Steve’s siblings was charged with manslaughter when a child in her care died.

Samantha Kematch was also a permanent ward from a dysfunctional family. She had no contact with her father, and it’s suspected she suffered sexual abuse as a child. When she was 16, her first child became a permanent ward. When Phoenix was born, Kematch answered questions from social workers with shrugs and “I don’t knows” and could not account for why her first child was apprehended at birth. Kematch and Sinclair agreed to place Phoenix in care temporarily, then avoided social workers after they got her back. When Kematch took Phoenix to live with her, she wouldn’t let child-welfare workers in the door one pivotal day in March 2005. The social workers were following up on an anonymous tip Phoenix was being abused and locked inside a room.

For many aboriginal people, the approach to social workers is much like that of Sinclair and Kematch — avoidance, refusal to accept services, downplaying problems, intransigence. Fixing that is at the core of rebuilding a child welfare system that helps families instead of apprehends kids.


“Steven and Samantha have clearly indicated their mistrust and unwillingness to be involved with a child welfare agency however they have not demonstrated a capacity and commitment to ensure their child’s well-being enough for the agency not to be involved. Unfortunately, because of their past involvement as wards of a child welfare agency they are not receptive to services from the agency and they deny or minimize any issues presented in an effort to keep the agency away from them. They would do anything, or nothing, to keep the agency at bay. It is this worker’s opinion that it is this attitude and disregard for the agency that has probably resulted in this agency’s previous termination of services, and not a lack of child welfare issues.”


— Social worker Laura Forrest’s written caution against returning Phoenix to her parents



Local child development expert Rob Santos called it “one of the most pernicious and invisible forms of child maltreatment.” It’s not the kind of outright brutality Phoenix suffered. It’s neglect.

Long-term neglect is more damaging to cognitive and emotional development than abuse, agreed Nico Trocme, director of the McGill Centre for Research on Children and Families in Montreal.

The child-welfare system is eight times more likely to investigate neglect involving aboriginal kids as non-aboriginal kids.

Neglect is often born of poverty. Parents burdened by problems, terrible housing or the stress of working two jobs don’t always have time for the kind of playful interactions that help babies build hundreds of neural connections per second.

At the extreme, chronic neglect creates a permanent state of fight-or-flight. If a baby lives in a chaotic, unpredictable and dangerous environment, the stress response becomes almost permanent, overloading the developing brain and shrinking the number and strength of neural connections, research compiled by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child suggests. Toxic stress also makes it hard to develop all the character traits needed for a successful life, such as self-control, persistence and the ability to plan and make social connections. That helps continue the cycle of poverty.

Damage from neglect can be permanent and requires sustained and long-term service from agencies able to work with people in their homes. The families that need the most help don’t ask for it and are the most difficult to help.


“You compare neglected children to any other type of child — physically abused, sexually abused, children living in poverty, children living in a range of circumstances — neglected children stand out. Emotionally neglected children, physically neglected children stand out. You can measure them any which way you want. You can measure their language acquisition at age three, at age four. You can measure rates of anxiety and depression as teenagers. You can look at their aggressiveness. You can look at how they do at school, at educational delay, dropout. Any which way you measure them, at any age, neglected children are the ones that have the worst outcomes, by far.”


— McGill University child expert Nico Trocme, as quoted in the Hughes report



Poverty has such wide-ranging effects that doctors across Canada are now beginning to consider it their single biggest public health issue.

Poverty permeated nearly every aspect of Phoenix’s life, from her transient living situation to her parents’ addictions and status as chronic welfare recipients.

According to a new report by the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, poverty spins off into nearly every aspect of a child’s health and development. Child mortality is much higher among poor kids. Suicide rates are much higher. Grade repetition is much higher. Teen pregnancy rates? Much higher. Asthma and diabetes are more common. School performance, like counting ability in Grade 3 and language skills in Grade 12, are worse. Many of those indicators aren’t getting better over time.


“Socioeconomic status is the big story and, you know, you can do things to try and increase breastfeeding, you can do things to try and reduce smoking during pregnancy, all sorts of components you can look at are going to make, have an impact on how kids do at school, but they’re not going to have anywhere near the impact if we can change socioeconomic status, if we can reduce inequities and lift kids out of poverty.


— Inquiry testimony of Marni Brownell, community health expert with the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy


“Two dimensions of poverty are important to measure… First is its depth: life is much more difficult for families living far below the poverty threshold than for those who are closer to it. The second dimension is time: the longer people live in poverty, the harder it is to escape. Children of families that have been living in poverty for generations don’t see the possibility of a different life. Many have never known anybody who has worked for a living, so they don’t know what that means.”


— Commissioner Ted Hughes, summing up the testimony of Shauna MacKinnon, former Winnipeg head of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives



Children need a stable home to flourish. When families can’t get basic shelter needs met, children suffer. Kids whose parents are on assistance are often on the move: they can’t make ends meet, can’t pay the rent and get kicked out.

The Institute for Urban Studies estimates 100,000 people in Winnipeg are at risk of becoming homeless because they’re barely scraping by. That lack of stability and roots is hard on kids. Children who are constantly moving don’t connect with their schools or peer groups. Eventually they become “invisible” at school and drop out as soon as they can.

Phoenix moved dozens of times, between both parents, in and out of foster care and between informal caregivers. Many times, her caregivers couldn’t even be reached by phone. Phoenix became “invisible,” the inquiry into her death heard time and again.

She was registered for nursery school in September 2004 but didn’t attend the non-compulsory classes. Wellington School sent someone to her home to check on the child and was under the impression Phoenix “went to the reserve,” a common occurrence at the school, which has a large aboriginal population.

If Phoenix had attended school, there would’ve been a lot of people looking out for her.

There is a lot of moving back and forth between reserves and Winnipeg, the inquiry heard. About 85 per cent of aboriginal people who move to Winnipeg end up in the inner city, where poverty is concentrated. They often come for jobs, education and opportunity but find the housing situation so difficult they return to the reserve. Family and spiritual ties also keep drawing people back to reserves. Frequent moves make it tough to access acceptable and affordable housing in the city. Housing on the reserve is often worse because of a lack of funding, and early childhood education and daycare is limited, if it exists at all.



What kind of sick mind tortures and murders a child?

Samantha Kematch was immature, had trouble expressing emotions, struggled with language, understanding jokes and building relationships. She was apprehended when she was 11 because her mother drank heavily, had drinking parties and was emotionally and physical abused. She could’ve had fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Kematch had an “emotionally flat” and uninterested reaction to her first child and to Phoenix. Those who knew Kematch saw her as distant and hostile to Phoenix, and harsh in disciplining her. Social workers suspected Kematch had some cognitive and psychological difficulties. A psychiatrist determined she was not depressed, but he did not look into other mental health issues that impacted her parenting. A parenting capacity assessment was never performed to see if Kematch was capable of mothering. For Phoenix’s last Christmas, Kematch taught the four-year-old to say degrading obscenities, locked her in a bedroom and took away her presents. There are many, many mothers like Kematch in the child welfare system. She was seen as routine.

Cognitive issues such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder are far more common in the child welfare system than many realize, and mental illness, whether its born of trauma or chemistry, is, too. Children in care, especially those who have been neglected, continue the cycle, They are hospitalized for mental illness at a rate 10 times higher than children not in care, and they have double the rate of suicide attempts. They also struggle mightily in school.



For generations, white folks have been taking away aboriginal people’s children and making up the rules that govern child welfare. Devolution of the child welfare system was supposed to transfer that authority for the care of aboriginal children back to the aboriginal community, but it’s a half-done process. The system is still mainly run and administered by non-aboriginals. Most of the children taken into care are still aboriginal and their numbers are growing.

Education that builds capacity in the aboriginal community is the only way Manitoba is going to reduce the number of kids who need to be in care, said Prof. Harvey Frankel, who heads the only accredited social work program in Manitoba.

In Manitoba, 87 per cent of the children in care are aboriginal. Only 28 per cent of social work students are aboriginal, and about 23 per cent of full-time faculty are aboriginal.

The University of Manitoba is developing a master’s program in social work based on aboriginal perspectives and knowledge rather than mainstream social science, said Frankel. It incorporates elders in its academic programs, for example.

Two of the social workers in Phoenix’s case were aboriginal — Dolores Chief-Abigosis and Stan Williams. Both were seen to drop the ball. Chief-Abigosis made several phone calls but didn’t provide any services to Phoenix’s family. Williams returned Phoenix to her father’s care without addressing his alcoholism.

Having aboriginal social workers administering non-aboriginal programs isn’t enough. The entire ethos of the child welfare system must be reoriented around indigenous values, programs and culture with the view, in the words of former child advocate Billie Schibler, of healing broken families who have lost touch with their aboriginal heritage. That’s a long, fraught process.


We have to be in charge of ourselves… We dominate all the problems — child welfare, criminal justice, poor health outcomes. Unless we dominate the solutions we are going to continue on the same way.”


— Inquiry testimony of Leslie Spillett, executive director of the urban aboriginal social development agency Ka Ni Kanichihk Inc.



We know what works. It’s just going to cost hundreds of millions to do it.

In addition to bureaucratic and funding changes to the child welfare system, the Hughes report hinted at broader, more comprehensive ways to tackle the root causes.

That includes far, far more help from community-based agencies that offer programs to parents before they fail. That could include respite for single parents, life skills and parenting workshops, full-time support workers stationed in the home, cultural programs that help people reconnect with their indigenous heritage, and employment training. It also includes early childhood programs that get kids very early.

Good models include the new program at the Lord Selkirk Park housing project that has improved IQs of the most at-risk youngsters in Manitoba, whose families live in chronic poverty with parents battling its symptoms — depression, addiction and child neglect.

Called the Abecedarian approach, it was piloted in North Carolina and involves intensive, daily training with early childhood educators to equip young, at-risk kids with brains and social skills strong enough to break the cycle. Parents who had to enter a lottery to get their kid in the program have to agree to home visits from a support worker in the program that’s been proven to have long-term success. By age 21, almost 70 per cent of the children who received the enhanced early education were attending a four-year post-secondary program or were employed in a skilled job (such as electrician) compared with 40 per cent of the at-risk kids who didn’t.

It could also mean an expansion of the widely-hailed Roots of Empathy program that’s meant to combat the kind of indifference Kematch displayed. The program brings babies and parents into classrooms so kids can see a healthy bond and identify with a vulnerable infant.

Those, and more programs like them, require a huge infusion of cash and expertise that doesn’t exist yet. And, programs need to be delivered in a one-stop-shop way, so people aren’t running from one office to another, trying to create their own patchwork of help.

Phoenix’s life was also marred by the addictions of those around her. Her father was an occasional drunk. Her mother smoked crack. Treatment for addictions, already a complex emotional process, is spotty in Manitoba. There are long wait-lists, and still a limited number of places with an indigenous focus.

Finally, many who testified at the Hughes Inquiry said there’s a need for a bold initiative to end poverty, such as a guaranteed annual income, the simple act of giving poor people more money.

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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