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Phoenix Victoria Sinclair was in and out of foster care through much of her short life. ((CBC))

The Manitoba government called a full public inquiry Wednesday into the death of five-year-old Phoenix Victoria Sinclair, at the same time that two reviews criticizing the province's child welfare system were released.

Phoenix, who was in and out of foster care through much of her short life, was allegedly abused and killed in June 2005on the Fisher River Cree Nation. However, no one outside her immediate family noticed she was missing until RCMP received a tip in March.

Premier Gary Doer said Wednesday that the public has a right to know how a child could disappear for nine months without her disappearance being noticed.

Phoenix's birth mother, Samantha Kematch, 24, faces first-degree murder charges in connection withthe girl'sdeath. She was denied bail on Aug. 30. Kematch's boyfriend, Carl Wesley McKay, 43, was also charged with first-degree murder. Both were charged in mid-March.

No date has yet been set for the inquiry. The province will seek legal advice on what ground the inquiry can cover without jeopardizing the ongoing criminal proceedings.

"If it takes a village to raise a child, what the heck happened to this village called Manitoba?" said Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh, who released the reports on Wednesday.

Questions about girl's death must be answered: Mackintosh

"We need these questions answered in public, about the role of the child welfare system in this case. The public is owed accountability at all levels— accountability on the part of the family, the community, the child welfare system, and at the political level, both here and federally."

RCMP say Phoenix was abused and killed in June 2005, three months after Child and Family Services returned her to the custody of her birth mother and closed her case. At the time of Phoenix's death, officials had lost track of her.

Shortly after news of Phoenix's death came to light, then-family services minister Christine Melnick called the two reviews of the child-welfare system, along with a "special case review" of the circumstances leading to the girl's death.

Reviews shed light on system

The reviews were chaired by Children's Advocate Billie Schibler, the provincial ombudsman and two external parties.

The first review, chaired by Schibler and James Newton, head of psychology at the Manitoba Adolescent Treatment Centre, looked at the deaths of 99 children who were in care between 2004 and 2006.

The report looked at 18 child and youth homicides between January 2003 and March 2006. Of those cases, 40 per cent of the victims wereunder the age of five and were killed by a parent or caregiver. And the majority of those children were living in homes that presented a high level of risk, but did not receive a basic risk assessment by a social worker.

The second review, chaired by Schibler, Tikinagan CFS head Michael Hardy and provincial ombudsman Irene Hamilton, examined the child-welfare system as a whole.

Both reports concluded that system needs more money, workers and training. It also found that workers need additional resources to do their jobs properly, such as broadband networks and the ability to track children provincewide.

The report recommended that foster parents need more training and resources as well.

In accepting all 220 of the recommendations in both reports, Mackintosh admitted that Manitoba's child welfare system is underfunded and poorly resourced.

He promised tens of millions of dollars will be coming to show the government's commitment to act on those recommendations and strengthen the system.

"We are talking tens of millions here. Let there be no question about that," he said.

Mackintosh said he will act on several recommendations for change, including:

  • Reducing case workers' workloads in order to visit children and families more often.
  • Strengthening the province's child and family tracking computer system.
  • Working with the federal government to strengthen on-reserve child and family welfare services and eliminate jurisdictional funding disputes.

Mackintosh said the province will also launch a new program that will help families in difficulty before they face crisis. It will also broaden its services to include families that previously found little or no help in the child-welfare system.

Tories criticize delay in calling inquiry

Conservative Family Services critic Mavis Taillieu said Wednesday that the government should have calledan inquiry into Phoenix Sinclair's deathmonths ago.

"What this review has shown is that it is as bad, and even worse, than we expected it to be," she said.

She added that pouring money into the child-welfare system is no guarantee that children at risk and in care will be better off.