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.
Gindin also questioned Forrest about closing CFS files. There has been much made at the inquiry about when a file is closed.
Forrest made no bones about how unreasonable she thinks it is to expect CFS files to remain open until they can be tied up in a neat little bow.
"We can't keep files open just because there are unresolved issues," she said.
"To keep a file open because there is an unresolved issue? We would close no files. We would be active with almost every family in the city."
Roberta Dick also took the stand briefly this morning. Dick just retired this year, but in 2003 she worked in the central intake unit.
The description of her job from that time sounds frantic. Essentially, Dick would take calls for service from the community and try to figure how how best to direct them, and how immediately those calls would require follow-up. Then, as quickly as possible, Dick was expected to pick up the phone and move on to the next call, to the next child in possible danger.
It was so bad, Dick conceded that she might have given Phoenix Sinclair short shrift in 2003.
It was Dick who took the call from the Health Sciences Centre when the little girl showed up with that object wedged in her infected nose. Cases of possible medical neglect had several classifications in her unit. Low priority cases required a response within five days, while medium priority cases required a response within 48 hours.
Dick testified that it was common practice to assess the current workload before assigning a response time.
Commission counsel Sherri Walsh sought clarification: "So do I understand you chose the five-day response rather than the 48-hour response, in order to accommodate workload demands at intake?" she asked.
Dick's response was a simple "yes" that hung in the air for a moment.
To her credit, Laura Forrest followed up on that "low priority" medical neglect referral the same day she got it -- not that she was ever actually able to establish firm contact with the family, or to assess Phoenix's well-being.
We also heard from Kim Hansen, a plucky and engaged worker from the CFS after-hours unit. Hansen described the night she apprehended Phoenix Sinclair in June 2003.
At 10:50 a.m. that day, an anonymous caller told CFS about a drinking party on Magnus Avenue. A team of social workers went there and found Steve Sinclair sitting on his front porch. Phoenix was playing nearby. There was evidence of a party, with reports of some adults passed out.
Sinclair admitted he had had a few drinks and couldn't promise he wouldn't drink more. The workers didn't think he was drunk, but they did explain it was important that Sinclair remain sober and supervise his daughter.
They would be back later, they promised, to bring food for the home's bare cupboards.
When Kim Hansen came on duty later that day, she set off for Sinclair's home with a box of food staples. The moment she stepped inside, she smelled pot.
Given the previous warning about sobriety, and given it was the fifth time a social worker had visited Sinclair in two days, Hansen decided to pull the plug. She called police and arranged to apprehend the little girl.
Hansen took pains in her report to state that Sinclair wasn't a bad guy and seemed to be very bright, but she was worried there were gang members hanging around the house and she wondered if he could keep his nose clean.
But she was also encouraged when Sinclair -- upset his daughter was being taken away -- told her he "didn't like for Phoenix to see him like that," she recalled.
Hansen said she packed up Phoenix and spirited her away to caregivers at Place Louis Riel. Phoenix called them all "Mom."
Hansen still works in the after hours unit. She said since the time she apprehended Phoenix, the unit gets many more calls for service about far more acute situations.
But has the system has shifted and adapted enough to meet that growing demand and counter that crushing weight?
Certainly my colleagues, who this week spoke with overwrought workers from Sagkeeng CFS, are hearing the situation remains dire.
With CBC's Katie Nicholson where an inquiry is trying to figure out how a little girl fell through the cracks.