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.
Balan first stepped into the supervisory role at Winnipeg CFS in June
2000, when she was covering Lorna Hanson's maternity leave.
When Balan first assumed the role, Kerri-Lynn Greeley was working on the Phoenix Sinclair file.
Balan testified that she remembers working with Greeley as a very positive experience. However, there were no such words for Delores Chief-Abigosis.
Greeley left the agency on Oct. 2, 2000. Before she left, she brokered a deal between Samantha Kematch, Steve Sinclair and Winnipeg CFS for the return of their daughter.
The young parents and the agency agreed to fulfill six key points to get Phoenix back. Among them: regular visits to the home from a social worker.
After all, Phoenix was only five months old and therefore considered high-risk. Kematch, the agency knew, had already lost one child because of neglect, and there were outstanding concerns about the couple's ability to parent.
But the agency did not hold up its end of the bargain. Today, we learned that between Sept. 5, 2000, and Feb. 9, 2001, not a single social worker darkened the door of the family's Magnus Avenue home.
But no single worker is solely to blame for this lack of contact.
For six weeks, the file was in Balan's orbit, waiting to be assigned to the next worker.
Why, lawyer Jeff Gindin pressed today, didn't Balan just go make a field visit herself? After all, she was a trained social worker who said she continued to make field visits when necessary, even in her supervisory role.
Balan said she understood from the family support worker that the situation was stable and the family was getting enough support.
But again, the service contract clearly stated that the family needed to be closely monitored by a social worker.
Then came the question of the quality of Chief-Abigosis's work: her infrequent contact with the family, her slow response times, the fact that she did not appear to be in command of the details in the family's file.
Gindin needled Balan on what her own role was in the handling of the file. What did she do to correct Chief-Abigosis's work?
Balan testified she met bi-weekly with all the social workers she supervised. But her supervisory notes are all lost now.
As a result, there is no evidence she was aware of problems with Chief-Abigosis's work. There is no evidence that they sat down to address those issues. There is no evidence there were any real consequences for a social worker who failed to make contact with a family for three months after she was handed their file.
Balan said she could not recall whether she knew Chief-Abigosis commuted from Brokenhead to Winnipeg during the time she worked under her. Balan also said she didn't know the social worker was attending university full-time while running a full CFS caseload.
So back to my colleague, shaking her head on the escalator.
It's not just the missing notes, not the lack of contact with the family, not the apparent lack of oversight.
It's the slowly unfolding institutional tragedy we sit through every day ... and the knowledge that there are nearly 10,000 children enmeshed in the same system.
With CBC's Katie Nicholson where an inquiry is trying to figure out how a little girl fell through the cracks.