Tuesday, April 30
The Phoenix Sinclair inquiry has moved a little farther away from the little girl at the centre of the commission and a little closer to the systemic problems that played a role in her eventual demise.
Phase II of the inquiry offers a smattering of officialdom and the people who -- through some of the reports written on Phoenix Sinclair's tumultuous journey through CFS -- took officialdom to task.
Government, First Nations groups, and child and family services (CFS) agencies take the stand along with academics and analysts of the child welfare system.
Phase II has only been sitting for four days, but some major heavyweights have already weighed in, including Manitoba's auditor general, a former children's advocate, and the chief executive officer of CFS's massive Southern Authority.
When Carol Bellringer first started her term as auditor general, the office had already prepared a report on the child welfare system.
Bellringer delivered it to the minister in 2006, even though she told the inquiry she felt it was too early to perform an assessment of CFS. Six years later, her office reviewed 29 of the 86 recommendations in that original report.
Bellringer found that most of the recommendations were either implemented or being followed up on by government, but the auditor general was still dissatisfied with CFSIS, the child welfare agency's central database for children in care.
Bellringer stated that the system was dated in 2006. At that time, she had recommended the province look into either proving CFSIS was the right choice or start pricing out a more suitable system.
Six years later, Bellringer told the inquiry there didn't appear to be any progress on that front.
Bellringer acknowledged that computer systems aren't exactly cheap for cash-strapped governments. However, she also wryly noted, "If Manitoba Lotteries can track every dime, why can't CFS track every child?"
Tuesday, April 23
Today Phoenix Sinclair would have been 13 years old. There are no balloons and no cake. Instead, her day was marked by the end of the first phase of the mammoth public inquiry into her death.
Phase 1 of the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry was all about the evidence. After 54 days and 81 witnesses, a greater understanding of what went wrong and when has emerged.
Phoenix's bumpy ride through the child welfare system began at birth, when she was apprehended hours after coming into this world.
The system, the inquiry has revealed, was deeply flawed throughout Phoenix's brief life.
Social workers testified about high workloads, stress, poor information-sharing and serious issues with documentation and record-keeping.
Almost all the supervisory notes from Phoenix Sinclair's time in care have been lost, despite the desperate efforts of CFS agencies and the Department of Child and Family Services to locate them.
There were also the people who knew Phoenix. People who witnessed her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl McKay, abuse and neglect the little girl.
Some called CFS, some say they tried to call CFS, some did nothing.
Many spoke of harbouring deep suspicions about -- if not outright fear of -- CFS. Witnesses spoke of a reluctance to involve authorities.
Monday, April 22
It was a day of horrible details, hazy memories, and confusion as Karl McKay's sons and their mother took the stand. The names of all three are protected by a court order.
Doe #3, McKay's ex-common-law wife, was the first to testify. She spoke of the horrible abuse she suffered at McKay's hands: how he would beat her and how twice she was convinced he was going to kill her.
After the second time -- when McKay tried to throw her and her son, Doe #1, down the stairs -- she left him.
But years later, in 2005, she feared her son might be lured by gangs in Winnipeg. She had heard that McKay had become a Christian, moved to Fisher River, and was going to marry the new woman in his life.
She decided to send her son to live with his father for a while on the reserve -- a move endorsed by a community-based intervention program.
Doe #1, who was 12 years old at the time, began living in Fisher River in April 2005. Sometimes his brother, 14-year-old Doe #2, would accompany him.
But Doe #3 said she had concerns about her boys in Fisher River. They called because there was no food or toilet paper in the home.
Doe #3 gave money to Samantha Kematch and McKay to keep food on the table, but she wasn't convinced her boys were being properly cared for.
Doe #3 also testified that she was aware of the existence of a little girl living with McKay and Kematch. Phoenix was usually in the back seat when McKay would pick up or drop off his sons.
Cpl. Rob Baker
Friday, April 19
Wednesday, April 17
It was a long, difficult, and occasionally stomach-churning day of testimony and it started with yet another niece of Karl McKay.
Amanda McKay used to babysit Phoenix Sinclair when Karl McKay and Samantha Kematch lived in the McGee Street apartment complex in Winnipeg.
After the birth of their first baby, McKay noted that the parents neglected Phoenix. The four-year-old changed from a healthy and happy child to a sullen and malnourished waif.
Kematch and McKay also inflicted draconian punishment on Phoenix, as Amanda McKay discovered on one visit.
"I walked in and I asked where Phoenix was, and they said she was on the toilet," McKay told the inquiry.
"I asked why and they said she had peed herself, so they were making her sit there all day."
Amanda McKay also grew suspicious of a bruise on Phoenix's face. She asked Kematch and Karl McKay about it. They said she slipped in the tub.
She thought that was "fishy," and so she took Phoenix to her apartment and asked the little girl about the mark.
Phoenix echoed Kematch and McKay's explanation: a fall in the bathtub.
Lisa Marie Bruce
Tuesday, April 16
At this stage in the proceedings, no one is surprised to hear that Karl McKay is a violent man. He's already been convicted for the murder of Phoenix Sinclair.
McKay's criminal record and previous dealings with CFS have all been entered into the record. Even one of his former parole officers came forward to illustrate the threat he posed -- not just to women and children -- but to her staff of corrections professionals.
It's no secret McKay was filled with rage. It's not a secret to the commission and certainly not to his family.
Today, Ashley Roulette testified that her uncle Karl was a constant presence in her life, and that wasn't a good thing. She described him as mean and very aggressive.
"He wasn't scared to raise his hand to anyone, I guess," Roulette testified, before specifying the target of that hand: "women and children."
Roulette was on the receiving end of that fury when she was 16.
She told the inquiry, "He just punched me right in the middle of the face and I got two black eyes."
Roulette said she beat her uncle away with a phone and called police.
Tuesday, April 16
After another unscheduled interruption, the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry groaned to life once again this morning. As has become the tradition, every time the proceedings ground to a halt, commissioner Ted Hughes jump-started the hearings with feisty words of resolve and his sincerest hope that this would be the last bump in the road.
For Hughes, it is imperative that the inquiry gets down to business. The first phase of proceedings is now dragging well past the point at which Hughes had hoped all three phases of this mammoth inquiry would have concluded.
In March, Hughes ruled that lawyer Kris Saxberg was in a conflict of interest. Saxberg represented some 12 clients, some of whom had opposing points of view on very critical matters in the inquiry.
Following Hughes's decision, some of those clients had to get new lawyers who had to get up to speed.
And so the inquiry resumed, albeit with a few more lawyers in the room and one foot in Fisher River -- the community in which Phoenix Sinclair met her end.
Monday, March 11
After an extended break the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry resumes this morning.
For more than half a year now the most expensive inquiry in Manitoba's history has been lumbering along -- albeit with a few stops and starts. It has revisited every single one of Phoenix Sinclair's encounters with the child welfare system. We have heard from front-line social workers, their supervisors, managers and CEOs. We have heard from a school principal, a nurse, and a psychiatrist. We have heard from former foster parents, a former probation officer, and people who knew the little girl's mother.
Now the Inquiry is finally pulling into Fisher River: the community in which Phoenix was murdered and secretly buried. We got an eerie prelude of what the next three weeks will bring just before the inquiry broke on Feb 7th.
Samantha Kematch and Karl McKay moved out of Winnipeg after CFS showed up at their McGee St. apartment in March of 2005. They rented a home in Fisher River from Angela Murdoch. Murdoch testified she never saw any children around the home. She described going to the house once to collect rent. Kematch would only open the door a crack. Eventually, Murdoch asked the couple to leave.
But before then they had started to set up their new life in Fisher River. Band assistance administrator Shirley Cochrane signed Karl McKay's assistance cheques. According to band files, McKay was claiming assistance for one spouse and three children -- including Phoenix.
Neither Murdoch nor Cochrane ever saw Phoenix Sinclair.
But sisters Florence Bear and Darlene Garson did. The two are related to Karl McKay.
Bear recalled running into McKay outside a store. Phoenix -- her hair cropped -- looked like a boy. Bear asked McKay if Phoenix was his child. She told the Inquiry he replied, "No, she's too ugly to be mine. There is no resemblance."
Darlene Garson recalled Phoenix sitting stiffly in the back seat of the car. The little girl was clad in a white-striped long sleeve shirt and long rubber boots. She stared ahead -- not interacting with anyone.
Weeks later, Garson noticed Phoenix's absence. She asked McKay and Kematch where Phoenix was. They told her they had "sent her off with her granny." Then, Garson testified, they laughed.
Garson also recalled the day McKay asked to borrow a spade from her home. She would later learn that spade was used to bury the little girl's body.
The day took an even darker turn when Keith Murdock took the stand. He lived a stone's throw away from the house in which Phoenix met her end.
One summer night, in 2005, Murdock couldn't sleep. He sat at his dining room table and lit a cigarette gazing at the stars. But then something caught his attention at the house across the way.
Murdock caught sight of the headlights of Karl McKay's Ford Tempo backing up to the front door. He watched as McKay carried out two garbage bags and put them in the truck. McKay then walked out of the house "carrying something in his arms like a person carrying a rug or a person carrying a child."
He watched as the bundle was placed in the back seat.
The next day Murdock says he saw a mattress burning on McKay's lawn.
Murdock contacted police in 2006 after he learned of Phoenix's death. He told the inquiry he didn't know whether he had witnessed McKay disposing of the five-year-old's body but said, "I didn't want to carry that with me."
This week we will hear more from people who knew Phoenix Sinclair and who began to wonder where she was.
Tuesday, February 5
Darlene MacDonald normally wears the hat of the Manitoba's Children's Advocate. Today she was on the stand at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry as a former program manager with Winnipeg Child and Family Services.
MacDonald held that position for most of the years Phoenix Sinclair was bounced around the system.
Today, she told commission lawyer Derek Olson she was surprised the child's file had been opened and closed seven times without ever being referred for ongoing care. Especially, given how lengthy the file was.
MacDonald: Looking at the case, I would have reviewed the history.... Looked like they didn't have many supports in place ... and I would have expected it to be open long-term in Family Services.
Olson: You wouldn't have expected there to be a lot of openings and closings in a case like this?
MacDonald: That's right.
Had her file been kept open and had she had been referred for long-term supervision, things might have been different for Phoenix.
For one, MacDonald explained, Phoenix would have been assigned a steady single caseworker who would have gotten to know her parents and other caregivers. A steady relationship might have made all the difference.
Wednesday, January 30
It was a short week at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry: just two days. But it packed a lot of punch.
Two former CEOs of Winnipeg Child and Family Services (CFS) took the stand and spoke candidly about the major challenges they faced heading up the organization.
Lance Barber was at the helm of the child welfare agency between 1997 and 2001. When he left, Linda Trigg took the reins until 2004.
Both former CEOs have testified about major workload issues and a dire and growing need for services.
Barber, in particular, outlined some unsettling demographic research from the early 1990s.
Barber stated that a very high percentage of the agency's clients were aboriginal single-parent families, headed by women living in poverty.
Most lived in 55 small inner-city neighbourhoods. Within those neighbourhoods 40 to 50 per cent of open CFS cases were concentrated in public housing.
"There was," Barber said, "a large level of the population in crisis ... needing our service."
And that need, Barber noted, was growing.
The agency's budget. however, was not.
Monday, January 28
Linda Trigg's time as CEO of Winnipeg Child and Family Services sounds rather unsatisfactory.
Trigg was at the helm of the agency for most of the time Phoenix Sinclair was moving through its system. It was also the same period the great tectonic shifts of devolution rumbled through Manitoba's child welfare system.
Devolution was all about transferring services to more culturally appropriate agencies.
In 2003, the process really gathered steam as Manitoba's child-welfare agencies split family services into four new authorities: one each for aboriginal children in northern and southern areas of the province, one for Métis children, and a general authority for all others.
The change was aimed at creating a system in which First Nations people control the delivery of their own family services. The intention was to help more kids remain with their families.
It was a massive undertaking involving hundreds of staff and thousands of files.
For the social workers in the system, devolution meant a period of prolonged uncertainty.
Over the last few months, we have heard workers testify about not knowing if they would have a job at the end of the process, about increased stress, and about workload logjams as bundles of files were being prepared to be shipped off to new agencies.
Now we are hearing that it was no joy ride for those at the top, either.
Thursday, January 24
The search for answers at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry is moving up the food chain. Today it heard from two witnesses: a senior manager and a former CEO of Winnipeg Child and Family Services.
Dan Berg started on the stand yesterday. He's the manager who oversaw the work of the final social work team asked to assess Phoenix Sinclair in March 2005.
The workers, we know, closed the file without anyone seeing Phoenix or assessing her safety. Their supervisor, Diva Faria, signed off on the decision.
Later reports on how the agency handled the file would call the decision "catastrophic."
Berg was a tough nut to crack. He pushed back and wasn't afraid to get into a few aggressive word tussles.
He also stood by his underlings. He refused to condemn their work. But he did testify the team didn't have to close Phoenix's file and had three other options available to it.
Berg spoke of tremendous workload and of being, himself, somewhat unprepared for the role of manager.
Tuesday, January 22
This inquiry usually takes its time with witnesses. This morning, however, the lawyers set a blistering pace: a rapid-fire succession of front-line CFS workers.
In an elaborate game of "connect the dots," computer records revealed exactly how the panicked calls of SOR #10 ricocheted through the child and family services system.
SOR #10 testified yesterday to making somewhere between 20 and 30 calls to every agency in the province, in an effort to locate Phoenix Sinclair.
The witness feared something had happened to the little girl who seemed to have vanished.
Computer records show on Aug. 24, 2005, at least five workers performed searches for Phoenix Sinclair or her mother in CFS databases.
The first person to search the database that day was Nicole Lussier, a social worker with Metis CFS. At 1:57 p.m. that day, she ran a Prior Contact Check on Phoenix.
Lussier testified that it was undoubtedly prompted by a concerned call, but she had no memory of getting the actual call.
Next up: Deanna Shaw, who also used to work with Metis CFS. Shaw searched for Phoenix Sinclair four times in the database starting at 2:15 p.m.
Shaw also couldn't recall getting a call from someone concerned about Phoenix Sinclair, but she testified her search would have had to have been prompted by a specific call.
Shaw, like all the others, didn't feel the caller's concerns had enough weight to re-open Phoenix's file or send a referral to the Crisis Response Unit.
Monday, January 21
Source of Referral #10's time on the stand was short but powerful.
The witness, who can't be identified by a court order, used to look after Phoenix Sinclair in her last years.
The witness spoke of a smiling girl who loved to dance ... except when her mother, Samantha Kematch, was around.
Around Kematch, the witness said, Phoenix was quiet and withdrawn. Kematch was a "terrible mother," often emotionally and verbally abusive toward Phoenix.
The witness remembered the time Kematch brought Phoenix over for a visit. The witness asked if Phoenix was hungry and she nodded. Kematch, however, said she couldn't eat. The witness ignored Kematch and set a place at the table for Phoenix.
The witness was attached to Phoenix, even at one point offering to take care of the little girl more permanently.
"You can keep the welfare cheques," the witness offered. Kematch refused.
Monday, January 21
Diva Faria is in a tough spot. She was the last supervisor to sign off on closing Phoenix Sinclair's CFS Winnipeg file not once, but twice in the space of four months.
In both instances, no one from the agency actually eyeballed the little girl.
The first time was in December 2004, when social worker Shelley Willox was unable to refer the file to intake or get face-to-face contact with the child.
The second and final time was in March 2005. The agency had been told that Phoenix was being locked in a room and there was an "unspecific allegation of abuse."
CFS's crisis response unit (CRU) tried twice to visit the little girl's McGee Street home in Winnipeg. Unsuccessful, the file was forwarded to intake for follow up.
The file was punted back to CRU. Two more CRU workers made a field visit to the house.
As we know, Samantha Kematch wouldn't let them inside. They left after a brief conversation and the lead worker suggested the file be closed.
Diva Faria told the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry that she trusted the judgment of the workers, especially the senior worker, Bill Leskiw.
Leskiw has already told the inquiry that he was just a back-up worker, there simply for safety and support. He said the file belonged to the other worker, Christopher Zalevich.
No matter which worker suggested closing the file, we know Faria signed off on it.
Wednesday, January 16
When Christopher Zalevich made that last Child and Family Services visit to Phoenix Sinclair's Winnipeg home in March 2005, he wasn't alone.
Bill Leskiw was there, too. Today at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry, Leskiw spoke of that visit as best he could.
Leskiw is a veteran CFS worker and had nearly 20 years of experience under his belt when he accompanied Zalevich on that visit to Samantha Kematch's apartment.
Workers in CFS's Crisis Response Unit tried to buddy up on home visits for safety reasons. Having a "backup" worker along for the ride could also be a big help for workers suddenly facing complicated situations.
On that particular day, Zalevich was asked to check into allegations Phoenix Sinclair was being locked in a room.
The two managed to get inside the apartment building, but Kematch didn't let them past her door.
Zalevich told Kematch it wasn't safe to lock her child in a room. After a 10- to 15-minute conversation, the workers left. Zalevich returned to the office and recommended the file be closed.
Leskiw has no memory of that day. He isn't even sure if he was briefed on the reason for the field visit to Kematch's apartment. However, he certainly seemed sure of his colleague's judgment.
Tuesday, January 15
Christopher Zalevich was Phoenix Sinclair's last chance.
On March 9, 2005, the social worker visited her mother's McGee Street apartment in Winnipeg. As was Child and Family Services (CFS) policy, Zalevich was accompanied by a co-worker, Bill Leskiw.
Samantha Kematch wouldn't let him in the door. Kematch told him she had company and she stepped outside. Zalevich reported that she seemed shy.
Kematch wanted to know who had sent them and tried to get that information out of them. Zalevich replied that they couldn't tell her who tipped them off.
Kematch asked them if it was because she had yelled at Phoenix a few days earlier. Zalevich then asked her about the allegation that had brought them there: that Kematch was locking Phoenix inside a room.
Kematch explained that she and Phoenix shared a room. Zalevich told her it wasn't safe to lock the little girl away; that it would be a bad idea in case there was a fire. She agreed with him.
Kematch's infant daughter -- Phoenix's half-sister -- began to fuss in the apartment. She brought the baby into the hallway and Zalevich observed that Kematch appeared to a be a loving parent.
Zalevich and Leskiw left without ever seeing Phoenix. When Zalevich got back to the office, he suggested the file be closed.
"I believed she was safe," he told the inquiry today.
Diana Verrier (via video link)
Monday, January 14
Phoenix Sinclair's file was re-opened one last time before her death, but it would be closed within two days. Within that time frame, her file would be passed around in the agency like a tragic game of hot potato.
The file was re-opened after Source of Referral (S.O.R.) #7 called child and family services (CFS) officials with concerns from Samantha Kematch's friends.
S.O.R. #5 and S.O.R. #6 feared Phoenix was being abused and locked in a room for hours at a time. They asked a former foster parent to contact the agency on their behalf.
Jacki Davidson picked up the phone at the CFS After Hours Unit. Contrary to S.O.R. #7's testimony, Davidson said her unit didn't have any trouble taking tips from anonymous parties.
Davidson remembered it being a long phone call, but her notes don't reflect the same tone of strife and frustration that S.O.R. #7 spoke of on Thursday. That witness testified about having to convince Davidson to take the information seriously.
Davidson didn't dispatch a social worker to look into Phoenix's safety that night, but she did set the file up for a 24-hour response from the Crisis Response Unit. Richard Buchkowski was handed the file.
Thursday, January 10
Samantha Kematch was a broken person -- that description from a witness we can't identify, who spoke of a frustrating call made to CFS in March of 2005. The witness had serious concerns Phoenix Sinclair was in danger.
Those concerns came from the witness's former foster child. The foster child knew Kematch and had observed enough disturbing behaviour toward Phoenix, her daughter, to merit a call to CFS.
The former foster child spoke of Kematch's hostile attitude toward Phoenix -- stalking away from the little girl, leaving her on the front step with her boots undone and instructing her friends not to help her.
On another occasion, the friend asked to take a picture of Samantha and her baby with boyfriend, Karl McKay. Samantha posed lovingly, holding the child to her chest.
The friend asked next to take a picture of Phoenix. "What do you want to take a picture of her for?" came the dark reply.
The friend shared fears with the former foster parent that Phoenix was being abused and possibly locked in a room while her mother was out. The foster parent had met Kematch once before and thought she was dangerous.
This afternoon the foster parent -- who also works in the child welfare system -- broke down several times, recounting the futile effort to save Phoenix Sinclair.
Wednesday, January 9
This is the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry, but the little girl is often strangely absent from the proceedings.
Phoenix gets lost in the day-to-day procedure, as an assembly line of lawyers work over an assembly line of child welfare workers.
Today, Phoenix zoomed into focus with jarring and heart-rending clarity.
Two witnesses, whose identities are protected through a court order, gave testimony about their friend, Samantha Kematch, who is Phoenix's mother.
Both met Kematch in a group home when they were teens. Both hung out with Kematch later in life, when they were all parents living in Winnipeg.
Of all the times they hung out together, the first witness only ever encountered Kematch with Phoenix twice.
In the first instance, the witness thought Phoenix was an obedient and quiet little girl. On a play date, Phoenix showed up in a white dress and a little hat.
Phoenix played in the back yard and -- as four-year-olds are wont to do -- got dirty. The witness testified that Kematch got angry with Phoenix, said she was being bad, and took her home.
The second time the witness saw Kematch, she was with her daughter at a bus stop at Dufferin and McGregor.
Kematch was coaching the little girl to call herself an "f---ing bitch."
It was a strange moment, to say the least, when commission counsel Sherri Walsh coaxed the actual words from the witness.
The witness was reluctant to say the expletive for the record, and was equally reluctant in 2004 to hear them from a child.
Helen Waugh (via video conference)
Tuesday, January 8
Patience is in short supply at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry. After a long and exhausting morning of cross-examination, commissioner Ted Hughes got testy.
Social worker Shelley Willox endured a cross-examination queue of half a dozen lawyers -- all retreading the same patch of ground, asking many of the same questions Willox had already answered the previous day.
Hughes, weary of the dragging proceedings, had several knuckle-rapping exchanges with counsel.
Impatient with a string of ambiguous questions from ANCR's lawyer, Kris Saxberg, Hughes prodded him to sharpen the focus and meaning of his queries.
He would chide others for similar infractions on clarity.
As inquiry counsel Sherri Walsh conducted what she promised would be a brief closing examination of Willox's testimony, MGEU lawyer Trevor Ray got up -- but not for long.
Monday, January 7
Commissioner Ted Hughes opened the day with renewed vigour, noting that this would be the year he would finally deliver the report on Phoenix Sinclair's journey though Manitoba's child welfare system.
But it didn't take long for that fresh energy to go a little stale. After all, there are still 100 witnesses waiting to take the stand.
The first witness of 2013 was Shelley Willox. She is a veteran of Winnipeg CFS's Crisis Response Unit, and that's where she was in December 2004 when she caught Phoenix's file.
Samantha Kematch, Phoenix's mother, had given birth to another child. The Women's Hospital wanted someone from CFS to check in on the family because Kematch told a social worker there she had had some CFS involvement.
Willox got the file and decided it should go to CFS Winnipeg's intake unit. Her hope was that someone would make a home visit within 48 hours.
The file was lobbed back to her. In CFS jargon, when a unit rejects a file referred to it, that is known as "the walk of shame."
SOR #4 (Hospital social worker)
Wednesday, December 19
Karl McKay was a violent man: a threat to women and children. He was so scary that in February 1999, a probation officer felt she was in danger.
The probation officer was no shrinking violet -- she had years of experience under her belt.
But when McKay came to her office, he was so hostile and difficult she decided to warn Child and Family Services.
That probation officer, Miriam Browne, also happens to be the head of the Manitoba Institute of Registered Social Workers.
Today, she told the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry that after that meeting with McKay, she marched into her supervisor's office. They decided from that day on that it was no longer safe for probation officers to meet with McKay alone.
Re-assigning McKay to the high risk unit ensured that in future dealings, two probation officers would be deployed for meetings with the troubled man.
Browne and her boss also drafted a letter to the social worker handling McKay's family file.
McKay had a long, spotty record of domestic abuse and arrests for assault. At the time, he was living with a woman and their two daughters.
CFS records indicate McKay frequently beat his partner and she often tried to cover for him, lying to doctors.
In 1999, McKay was supposed to complete a program for domestic abuse. But he missed a crucial session.
When he turned up in Browne's office, he was rude and belligerent.
Tuesday, December 18
In a public inquiry as ambitious and long-running as the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry, there are bound to be days when minutiae is the order of the day. Today was one of those days.
Former Child and Family Services (CFS) supervisor Carolyn Parsons was on the stand. Her testimony was essentially a re-tread of what we heard the day before from social worker Tracy Forbes -- but with a few distinct differences.
Forbes was asked to check in on Phoenix in May 2004 when the agency learned she was again living with her mother, Samatha Kematch.
Forbes had a difficult time getting in touch with the girl and there were two-week lapses in her attempts at contact. She told the inquiry that was because the unit was overworked.
She also failed to run Karl McKay's name through the CFS database upon learning he was living with Kematch. That, she said, wasn't usual procedure back then.
So what would Forbes's boss say?
Parsons agreed that the unit was overworked, but she said under-staffing wasn't the only reason.
Monday, December 17
Experience is a great teacher, but it is also a merciless one.
In May 2004, social worker Tracy Forbes caught Phoenix Sinclair's case from the Crisis Response Unit. Forbes was working in Intake and was asked to suss out the little girl's safety.
The agency had just learned Phoenix was living again with her mother, Samantha Kematch. The concerned tip came from an Employment and Income Assistance worker who was asked to process a request to add Phoenix's child benefit to Kematch's budget.
Forbes testified today that at the time, the unit she was working in was cleaved in half by sick leave. Three social workers were off, leaving three others to do the work of six.
One of her previous statements, entered into evidence at the inquiry, compared her situation to running on a spinning wheel.
Forbes said she tried repeatedly to make contact with the little girl and her mother over the next few months at weekly and bi-weekly intervals.
There were concerns Phoenix was in a high-risk situation, but Forbes -- pressed for time -- had few weapons in her arsenal. All she could do was leave cards and send letters to Kematch, a woman with severe cognitive problems.
Thursday, December 13
Confusing, contradictory, and occasionally very loud.
Phoenix Sinclair's godmother, Kim Edwards, was under cross-examination today.
It was a long frustrating morning for Gord McKinnon, the lawyer for Manitoba's Department of Family Services.
McKinnon tried to wrestle straight answers from Edwards: Where did she live while looking after Phoenix? When did she move out of her Selrkik Avenue home? When did her relationship with Rohan Stephenson dissolve? But Edwards wasn't about to say uncle.
Edwards, deeply mistrustful of the Child and Family Services (CFS) system, refuted almost all the evidence in agency records.
Yesterday, she threw around terms like "outright lies." Today, McKinnon asked whether she was suggesting Winnipeg CFS workers fabricate documents.
Edwards leaned forward.
"That is what I am definitely suggesting because I have seen it myself," she replied.
Wednesday, December 12
Kim Edwards is a flamboyant woman: full of passion and drive. That much I know from watching her every day at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry.
Day in and day out, she sits there, tightly coiled, furiously writing notes during other witnesses' testimony.
I have seen her shake her head in disgust at the witness stand. I have seen her compact body practically vibrate in rage. But all during these proceedings, she has remained silent.
That is, until today.
Today she unleashed her fury at the child welfare system.
Edwards clearly has a lot of anger around how the CFS system failed Phoenix. She detailed the times she called CFS, worried that Samantha Kematch had absconded with Phoenix, and her bitterness when she was told it was no longer any of her concern.
Edwards forcefully countered CFS records that detailed the contact workers made with her. She said those records were false and demanded to know how CFS workers could "write notes about things they didn't do."
Edwards also accused CFS of being a sort of family-busting Gestapo.
"All you need to do," she said, "Is have a BBQ and a few drinks and they come and take your kids away."
Diana Verrier (via video link)
Debbie De Gale
Tuesday, December 11
As a reporter, I occasionally go nuts when someone changes my copy and inserts an inaccuracy.
Often it's a mistake from a well-meaning colleague transferring a radio script to a TV script to the web. But sometimes it results in errors that ultimately make you look bad.
I have to admit here that I do make my own mistakes. But every now and then I find myself wearing someone else's mistake, and it's not very fun.
This is perhaps one of the factors at play in the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry's "altered file mini-drama" that has been playing out over the last two days.
Social worker Debbie De Gale testified that she clearly remembered checking a 24-hour response time on a safety assessment form she filed on Phoenix Sinclair in May 2004.
She also testified that the accompanying Crisis Response Unit (CRU) intake file was missing two important pieces of information. She believed the documents had been altered.
De Gale didn't directly blame anyone for removing the information in the CRU intake file. However, she did point fingers when it came to the safety assessment downgrade -- directly at Diana Verrier, her supervisor at the time.
Indeed, Verrier's initials are clearly visible on the form next to to the assessment downgrade.
Today, Verrier testified that she had no independent memory of that time, but when she looked at the forms it seemed to her she was merely making a correction -- not altering a response time.
SOR #3 (Financial assistance officer)
Debbie De Gale
Monday, December 10
Social worker Debbie De Gale was soft-spoken, but her testimony at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry today was explosive.
De Gale was working at Crisis Response Unit (CRU) in 2004 when she took a call from a financial assistance officer.
In the world of the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry, that officer is known only as Source of Referral No. 3 (S.O.R. No. 3). We heard from that witness this morning.
S.O.R. No. 3 contacted De Gale after Samantha Kematch and Karl McKay applied to add Phoenix Sinclair to their financial benefit agreement.
S.O.R. No. 3 recalled that a social worker had once said the little girl was not to be placed in her mother's care.
Concerned, S.O.R. No. 3 tried twice to reach a social worker before calling the CRU on May 11, 2004.
Debbie De Gale picked up the phone. De Gale testified it was the second time that day someone would call her about Phoenix's safety -- an "aunt" had also contacted the CRU and indicated that she was worried Phoenix might be at risk.
De Gale's job at the CRU was to assess cases and decide whether action was merited and, if so, how quickly.
At the time, response times varied based on the level of risk in the safety assessment: high-risk situations begged a response within 24 hours, medium-risk situations required a response within 48 hours, and low-risk situations within five days.
De Gale pulled out some of the history on Phoenix's family and promptly checked the box marked 24 hours.
That form, De Gale told the inquiry, was later altered.
It was a dramatic moment, to be sure, made all the more so when inquiry counsel Sherri Walsh produced the original document -- scribbles and all.
Thursday, December 6
This blog entry was written by the CBC's Sean Kavanagh, who is covering the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry this week:
Witnesses in a court -- or in this case, an inquiry -- don't come wrapped like the perfect Christmas present, meeting all the expectations of both giver and receiver.
Memories can fade and people sometimes make poor choices. Then, they are suddenly forced to air those decisions, sometimes from years past, like wet laundry ... in this case, in front of cameras and a phalanx of lawyers.
Rohan (Ron) Stephenson, who appeared before the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry today, was one of the few bright lights in the short life of Phoenix Sinclair -- a present whose wrapping was a bit tattered and the ribbon hanging off, but containing a real gift from the heart.
At Stephenson's house, they partied sometimes. People smoked pot. He worked nights and was often exhausted. But that has nothing to do with how much he cared for the little girl and how he tried to make his home a safe place for her.
Stephenson is a well-spoken man, able to put into words what many could not say on the stand. He talked about being part of the "marginalized part of society": people who don't have much, don't trust authority, and don't get respect from many other people.
He also forgot a lot of details. They just weren't important to him at the time, and he didn't remember them.
Stephenson did admit that he lied to CFS workers. He didn't come clean about his relationship with partner Kim Edwards ending, and the dynamic in his house was therefore changing.
But once in a while, candor, even when you acknowledge you've been lying, boosts credibility.
Stephenson also refused to condemn Child and Family Services (CFS) workers and lay the whole blame of Phoenix's death at their door.
"So I was a liar and they were incompetent and 15,000 other circumstances all came together, and now Phoenix is dead," he told the inquiry today.
Wednesday, December 5
This blog post is written by the CBC's Sean Kavanagh, who is covering the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry this week:
Today the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry took a step back from files and notes that aren't there and workers and supervisors that can't remember.
The inquiry focused instead on a father, his struggles to be a decent parent, and the daughter he lost.
To say the cards played to Phoenix's biological father, Steve Sinclair, weren't very good would be a fair statement.
He was a ward of Manitoba's Child and Family Services (CFS) system himself and his mother was a residential school survivor.
One of the coincidences that happen in small place like Manitoba: a case worker that worked with Steve as a child also briefly worked on Phoenix's file.
On the stand today, I never heard Sinclair ask for pity, or lash out in anger against the system, or even really condemn Samantha Kematch, Phoenix's biological mother, for what she did to the little girl.
I heard a guy describe his daughter in the way that most fathers do: what she liked, what she wore, how she moved, how she laughed.
Tuesday, December 4
This blog post is written by the CBC's Sean Kavanagh, who is covering the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry this week:
At least Doug Ingram's notes weren't "lost."
The Winnipeg CFS supervisor testified today that he knew exactly where his notes went -- he shredded them.
Ingram oversaw the Sinclair file in early 2004 and appeared at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry today.
Last week, the inquiry discovered that notes on the Sinclair case made by several CFS supervisors could not be found ... they were all lost somehow.
To be fair, a policy directing supervisors to maintain notes on discussions about cases came into effect on March 1, 2004, just weeks after the Sinclair file crossed Ingram's desk.
Ingram admitted later that he didn't adhere to that policy specifically, even after it came into effect.
Even if he is honest about where his notes went, it's a shame that Ingram saw fit to shred them.
In his testimony today, he virtually had no memory of the case, his part in it, and what decisions the CFS worker under him had made.
Monday, December 3
This blog post is written by the CBC's Sean Kavanagh, who is covering the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry this week:
I covered much of the legal wrangling leading up to the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry, but this was my first full day sitting and listening to the testimony.
Since the inquiry began, much has been made of notes going missing and some people's memories being poor.
The testimony of Child and Family Services (CFS) workers I have seen so far hasn't had those kind of headlines.
Instead, it's like the steady drip of a leaky faucet, and each drop seems to show just how big the crack was that Phoenix fell through.
Phoenix, we learned, was returned to her biological father, Steve Sinclair, despite misgivings from the CFS supervisor on the file.
Heather Edinborough told the inquiry that a psychiatric assessment was never done on Sinclair. She felt it wasn't his substance abuse that was an issue, but his inability to "attach" to his daughter Phoenix.
But neither the drinking nor parenting issues was compelling enough to stop CFS from returning Phoenix to the custody of her dad.
That didn't last very long.
Friday, November 30
After a week of guarded testimony, hearing from Heather Edinborough was a breath of fresh air.
The former Winnipeg Child and Family Services supervisor took the stand today. The Phoenix Sinclair file landed on her desk after the girl was apprehended from her father, Steve Sinclair, in June 2003, following a wild drinking party.
Knowing Steve Sinclair didn't trust CFS, Edinborough decided to try something different. She had heard good things about an aboriginal social worker named Stan Williams.
Williams used aboriginal cultural traditions with clients throughout Winnipeg's North End.
Edinborough figured Sinclair would be more trusting of a man who also shared his heritage.
From the start, Williams dug into the new family file. Edinborough recalled how passionately Williams advocated for his new client.
"He would lean in," she remembered, "and lock eyes with me."
Under Williams and Edinborough's watch, the Sinclair file was again closed in October 2003; father and daughter were reunited.
That, she testified, was a mistake.
Thursday, November 29
Phoenix Sinclair's life was a revolving door of social workers and caregivers. As we mine the case notes, many characters come and go.
Today the sad little tale of her baby sister, Echo, unfolded again.
Echo was born April 29, 2001. At the time, Phoenix had just turned one.
Shortly after Echo was born, her parents split. Case notes reveal that one night in June, Samantha Kematch came home to Steve Sinclair with a hickey on her neck.
Kematch had taken up again with her ex-boyfriend and the father of her first child, a little boy who became a permanent ward of Cree Nation Child and Family Services.
The break-up was increasingly volatile. Police were called to their Magnus Avenue home on a report of domestic violence. Kematch alleged that Sinclair assaulted her.
Sinclair told social workers that Kematch had absconded with the child tax credit and gone drinking. He said Kematch was boozing all the time and was out of control.
Police charged Sinclair with assault. While police sorted the matter out, Echo was left in Kematch's care.
Wednesday, November 28
"Ahhh," my French colleague sighed as we left the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry today, "this is making me so depressed."
No, we didn't hear more heart-rending details about Phoenix Sinclair. Rather, we heard more about the events that slow-marched her to her eventual death.
It wasn't a social worker who ultimately crushed the child's skull against a cold cement floor, but increasingly we're hearing exactly what the agency did and did not do to ensure her safety.
For the last two days, we heard testimony from Delores Chief-Abigosis, a former Winnipeg CFS social worker, who was assigned the Phoenix Sinclair file in mid-November 2000.
Chief-Abigosis's testimony was notable mainly because of its lack of answers. Her notes betray a lack of evidence that she ever tried to contact the family until February 2001.
It was noted that she only ever successfully visited the family home twice in the entire time she managed the case file -- a period of eight or nine months.
Today we heard more from the woman who supervised Chief-Abigosis.
Angela Balan's delivery was even, flat, almost monotone. She was composed, methodical in her answers, often pulling out her glasses to consult the evidence before giving her carefully-weighed answers.
It was that exacting behaviour that made me occasionally mourn the loss of Balan's supervisory notes. There's little doubt they would have been immaculately detailed.
Tuesday, November 27
It is astonishing how casual an admission it was: a blink, and you'll miss it moment.
The afternoon session was just getting underway, and former CFS Winnipeg supervisor Angela Balan was on the stand.
Measured and understated, she described how meticulously she maintained her supervisory notes: they were type-written and stored in blue binders, so that social workers could easily access and reference them.
That's when Derek Olson, the inquiry's senior associate counsel, dropped the bomb.
"My understanding is there's been a search for the supervisor notes for all supervisors involved, and they haven't been located. Is that the same with your notes?" Olson asked.
Balan matter-of-factly replied, "That's what Mr. McKinnon has advised me that they weren't able to locate."
In case you were wondering, that means all supervisory notes for the five years Phoenix was shuffled in and out of the child welfare system are missing, presumed destroyed.
Gordon McKinnon, the lawyer for Manitoba's Department of Family Services, says the department conducted a diligent search for the notes but could not find them.
McKinnon maintains those missing supervisory notes won't have a big impact on the inquiry because most of the information will likely appear in case files.
Not surprisingly, Olson took a slightly different tack, calling it a difficult situation.
Monday, November 26
Memory can be an elusive thing -- especially a decade after the fact -- but today's witness testimony bordered on amnesia.
Delores Chief-Abigosis was assigned the Phoenix Sinclair file in November 2000.
Just two months earlier, little Phoenix was handed back to her biological parents, Samantha Kematch and Steve Sinclair, albeit with strings attached.
Winnipeg Child and Family Services was worried enough about Pheonix's welfare to require the young couple to sign a service agreement with the agency. One of the main points they agreed to was to have regular visits with a social worker.
Because social worker Kerri-Lynn Greeley was leaving CFS Winnipeg in the fall of 2000, she filed a transfer summary and never saw Phoenix again after September.
The file wasn't assigned to another worker until it landed on Delores Chief-Abigosis's lap that November.
The family had Phoenix home a full two months at that point, without a single visit from an assigned social worker.
The case file Chief-Abigosis inherited held many cautionary notes about the potentially combustible family dynamic at play, but the social worker couldn't recall reading over any of those details.
Thursday, November 22
It's a familiar theme at these proceedings: too many cases, all of them complex, many of them closed without being fully resolved.
Today the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry heard from two longtime employees of Manitoba's child welfare system: Laura Forrest and Roberta Dick. Their testimony a study in how the weight of the demands on the system crushed their ability to function.
Forrest started on the stand yesterday and outlined her frustrations in trying to get a hold of Steve Sinclair in 2003. She was the social worker tasked with checking in on Phoenix's well-being, after the child showed up in hospital that February with an object that had been lodged inside her nose for three months.
Forrest said she tried five times in three months to make contact with Steve Sinclair. She left her card at his house but got nowhere.
Today Steve Sinclair's lawyer, Jeff Gindin, asked her why she didn't try harder. Why, he wanted to know, didn't she contact other family members or people from Sinclair's circle of friends? And why didn't she try to make contact with Sinclair on the evening or the weekend?
"I'm not going to say I did everything absolutely wonderfully in this regard. Obviously you're pointing out that I haven't," replied Forrest, who had earlier told the inquiry she sometimes juggled upwards of 40 cases at a time.
Forrest, in fact, pushed back a number of times as Gindin questioned her. Rational and collected through most of her time on the stand, at these moments it was evident she is frustrated with the microscope her work is now under.
Wednesday, November 21
It was just a handwritten little list that was entered into evidence at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry today, but it packed an emotional punch:
- One pair of pink panties, washed and hung to dry.
- One blue and white T-shirt.
- One pair of denim jeans.
- One blue white T-shirt with shorts.
- One pair white sandals.
These were the only items three-year-old Phoenix had to her name on the night she was apprehended by child and family services (CFS) workers in 2003.
We don't yet know the circumstances of her apprehension. Perhaps she had more clothes and there just wasn't time to pack them when the workers came for her -- today at the inquiry, we heard that's often the case.
Either way, it's a sad list that somehow makes the little girl seem smaller and more vulnerable.
Phoenix Sinclair had been off CFS Winnipeg's radar since October 2001, when the agency closed her file. At that point, Steve Sinclair, the girl's biological father, became her primary caregiver.
But in February 2003, someone identifying himself only as a "godfather" took Phoenix to a local emergency room. There, doctors removed a pus-filled and foul-smelling object from inside her nose.
Whatever it was was, it was believed to have been lodged in her nose for about three months. The tissue was inflamed and Phoenix was prescribed antibiotics, although there were concerns those drugs would not actually be given to her.
Enter social worker Laura Forrest. The moment she was asked to check in on Phoenix Sinclair's well-being, she went to Steve Sinclair's home on Magnus Avenue.
But from the outset, Steve Sinclair wanted nothing to do with CFS Winnipeg. When Forrest explained why she was there, Sinclair replied, "We'll see about that."
Tuesday, November 20
Imagine being handed a 12-year-old time card and being asked to use it to reconstruct your week. It happened today at the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry.
Marie Pickering is a family support worker. In 2000, CFS Winnipeg asked her to work with Steve Sinclair and Samantha Kematch. The young parents needed help to get their daughter Phoenix back.
As a family support worker, Pickering helps parents accrue basic skills, using everything from home visits to shopping trips. But whatever she did with Sinclair and Kematch is lost in the ether.
Even though Pickering files notes regularly on her clients, the agency was unable to locate anything from her time with Phoenix Sinclair's parents -- except, of course, for her time cards.
Pickering was relaxed on the stand, even a little playful as she cracked a few jokes. But then she got a bit of a pass, since the agency dog effectively ate her homework.
This is the second time a witness hit the stand without the benefit of notes. Last week, CFS supervisor Andrew Orobko admitted that he destroyed all of his notes from Phoenix's time in care.
Today the inquiry also heard from Kathy Peterson, the social worker who closed Sinclair's file in October of 2001.
Peterson started on the stand yesterday afternoon. This morning -- barely 45 minutes in -- she had to ask for a break.
SOR #2 (HSC social worker)
Monday, November 19
Dr. Gary Altman spent between 45 minutes and an hour with Samantha Kematch and Steve Sinclair one September day in 2000.
The psychiatrist testified today that he was only asked to determine whether Kematch suffered from depression.
At the time, Altman was doing some consulting work for Winnipeg Child and Family Services (CFS). He would periodically meet with foster parents and other clients referred to him by the agency.
Unlike when he would see a medical consult, Altman was not asked to file a written report to the CFS agency after each session.
Rather, he was just expected to have a verbal debrief with a social worker and share his impressions of the client in question. The CFS worker would then incorporate his views into a summary -- often weeks after the fact.
With a system like that in place, it isn't surprising that the doctor did not wholly agree with the CFS account of his assessment of Kematch.
Thursday, November 15
Their daughter was in CFS care, but there was a plan. Winnipeg CFS laid it out for them: if Samantha Kematch and Steve Sinclair attended parenting classes and regular supervised visits with Phoenix, they could regain custody. And there was one other point they had to satisfy: Samantha Kematch had to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
As we learned today, parenting classes and visits were no problem. But there was an issue getting an assessment of Kematch's mental state.
Kerri-Lynn Greeley was the social worker tasked with helping Kematch and Sinclair get their daughter back. For three months, it popped up again and again in her case notes: "Kematch still needs assessment."
One note entry read like a concerned haiku: "Hesitant to return child without the assessment. Not know what is going on with her. Need sense of what return child to."
On Sept. 1, 2000, Kematch and Sinclair moved into a larger apartment on Magnus Avenue to make way for Phoenix's arrival. Even though Kematch had not yet undergone a psychiatric assessment, Greeley decided Phoenix could return to her parents ... but she had some misgivings.
Greeley drew up a service contract between Winnipeg CFS and the young parents, outlining six expectations:
Wednesday, November 14
It was a bad decision -- there's no doubt.
As the inquiry hearings began again, social worker Andrew Orobko returned to the stand. He talked further about the plan he developed for Phoneix Sinclair's parents. He spoke of the hope that if they took the proper steps -- met with a psychiatrist, attended parenting classes, and visited with Phoenix -- that the family might be reunited.
Orobko is a jovial figure, polite and very conversational. He presents like a laid-back folkie, even under pressure. At times, lawyers found it a little difficult to control Orobko and his cheerful willingness to share insights into the child welfare system of 2000.
But his insights took the back seat when it was revealed that in 2010 he destroyed all of his supervisory notes from that time.
Orobko said he had a personal rule of destroying notes that were five years old. He maintained that the notes were merely personnel issues: medical leave, annual leave, maternity leave records. He said they had no possible bearing on the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry.
SOR #1 (Social worker and child therapist)
Amber Vialette (CFS Business Analyst CFSIS)
Alana Brownlee (CEO, Winnipeg Child & Family Services)
Tuesday, November 13
How could a five-year-old girl simply disappear? How could she have been left in the care of people who horrifically abused her and ultimately killed her? And why was her body not discovered for months after the fact?
These are the questions the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry will try to answer over the next six months, and it's going to be a tough slog, with more than 100 witnesses set to testify.
And it will come at enormous cost to the province: the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry is expected to be the most expensive Inquiry in Manitoba's history.
Before the Manitoba Court of Appeal hit the pause button on hearings in September, we heard from some key players involved in Sinclair's early care. From the moment she was born, it seems, little Phoenix was destined to end up in child and family services (CFS) care.
A person only referred to in the inquiry as Source of Reference No. 1 did the very first assessment of the infant's chances with her family hours after her birth. S.O.R. No. 1 was concerned by Samantha Kematch's apparent lack of interest in parenting and by the fact there were no preparations in place for Phoenix's arrival: no crib, no blankets, no sleepers.
Enter social worker Marnie Saunderson, charged with following up on the Sinclair file. In her testimony, she spoke of Kematch as a person who was troubled during her own time in CFS care. She said Kematch's records indicated that she was physically and emotionally abused. Her files showed a pattern of violent, disruptive, and threatening behaviour.
And there was another red flag: Kematch had a previous child that was also taken into care.
Yet despite all this, there was hope that maybe with the right support Kematch and Steve Sinclair could one day raise their daughter.
With CBC's Katie Nicholson where an inquiry is trying to figure out how a little girl fell through the cracks.