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Little one becomes a fading memory

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/11/2012 (1736 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Shortly after my daughter was born, a public health nurse dropped over on a routine visit. She was checking whether a pair of novice parents had their wits about them. She discovered I was witless enough to be putting my baby's diaper on backwards.

It was a rookie mistake made by a sleep-deprived woman with no experience handling someone who weighed less than seven pounds. One visit from the nurse and we were up and running.

But no amount of help given to Samantha Kematch could make that woman a mother. She had parenting classes, an in-home support worker, several social workers, lessons in how to grocery-shop and prepare meals, and a psychiatric assessment. She was watched, measured and propped up. The foster mother who cared for Phoenix Sinclair after she was born sent along photos of the wee one at play, a reminder of the sort of things babies like to do.

Kematch had support coming out the wazoo. None of it stuck.

The inquiry into the circumstances of Phoenix's death is proving to be slow, sad work. What's most striking is how ordinary the case of Steve Sinclair, Samantha Kematch and Phoenix Sinclair was to Child and Family Services workers. Two parents raised in the child-welfare system themselves, no preparation for the baby they were about to bring into the world, no prenatal care, a mother with suspected mental-health issues, a couple who were more or less happy to sign their child into care following her birth.

Just another day at the office for the CFS workers, and that's not a slam on them. The sheer volume of misery they witness must be staggering.

Social worker Kerri-Lynn Greeley testified Thursday about her brief involvement in the newborn's life. She had the file from May 2000 until early October, when she left the agency and yet another worker caught the assignment.

Greeley determined it was safe to return Phoenix to her parents, an opinion bolstered by reports from a staff in-home worker and observations by a supporter of the couple who worked for the Boys and Girls Club.

Greeley's memory of her precise involvement was spotty, as it well might be 12 years after the fact. Unfortunately, her notes were often incomplete too. "I don't remember," was her answer to most questions yesterday.

She doesn't remember whether she saw Phoenix with her parents once or twice after she was handed back. Once, for sure, at her office. Was she ever at their home?

"I can't recall."

One or two visits seems awfully light for a vulnerable baby handed back to parents with their own hair-raising CFS files. But she was within industry standards and she had other files.

This is not a criminal trial, commissioner Ted Hughes reminded us Thursday. It is an examination of the facts. Greeley let Sinclair and Kematch take their baby home on Sept. 5, 2000, despite the lack of a psychiatric assessment on Kematch. That condition was supposed to be met before they got their baby back. The defence Greeley offered Thursday afternoon was that the assessment was scheduled and these things take time to arrange.

True, but having a date set isn't the same thing as having the assessment in hand, is it? The social worker had been concerned enough about Kematch that she made the assessment a condition of the signed agreement between parents and agency. She had previously discussed Kematch with another psychiatrist and talked to her boss about the new mother seeing someone at the Women's Health Clinic for possible post-partum depression.

She was worried about this mother.

The goal at the CFS was to reunite the child with her parents. The couple appeared to be on track. They attended parenting classes, their house was clean, they showed up to visit Phoenix when they were supposed to. There were no signs they were drunk or high. When the psychiatric assessment was done, it said Kematch was not depressed or suffering from a mood disorder. Psychiatrist Gary Altman will take the stand Monday and presumably shed some light on that finding.

And so Phoenix went back.

In March 2006, Greeley heard about the child's slaying. She was on maternity leave. The child's name was familiar, she thought at the time.


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