Phoenix Sinclair inquiry told child welfare agency in chaos

Manitoba Child and Family Services workers were overworked in 2004 and might have missed an opportunity to save Phoenix Sinclair.

Social workers are not regulated in Manitoba, inquiry hears

Phoenix Victoria Hope Sinclair was killed on the Fisher River First Nation in June 2005 but her body was not located until March 2006. (Family photo)

Manitoba Child and Family Services workers were overworked in 2004 and might have missed an opportunity to save Phoenix Sinclair.

A child protection supervisor on Tuesday told the inquiry looking into the five-year-old girl's death that heavy workloads were an issue in managing cases.

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Carolyn Parsons, who ran the central intake unit for Winnipeg CFS when Phoenix's file was active in 2004, said cases with lower priority would be pushed aside to deal with more complicated ones.

"People were feeling overwhelmed and unable to meet the needs of their clients," she testified.

Parsons told her bosses of the workload issues but attempts to ease the backlog weren't successful, she said.

At the time, the child welfare agency was in chaos due to a reorganization with many files being transferred from the main office to First Nations-run umbrella CFS agencies.

Many workers didn't know where they might be re-assigned and there was tremendous pressure to get files ready to transfer to those agencies, the inquiry was told.

Background check wasn't done

That workload and uncertainty prevented workers from giving as much energy as they should have to case work, Parsons said.

In 2004, that meant the agency didn't perform a background check on Phoenix's mother's new boyfriend, Karl McKay.

If they had, they could have told Phoenix's mother, Samantha Kematch, that there were concerns and kicked McKay out of the home or have apprehended the little girl.

The inquiry heard on Monday that a system search of McKay would have revealed multiple files detailing violent incidents and substance abuse.

Instead, McKay and Kematch moved with Phoenix to the Fisher River First Nation, about 150 kilometres north of the city.

Phoenix was beaten to death in 2005, at the age of five, but her body wasn't found until March 2006 — nine months later — wrapped in plastic in an unmarked shallow grave near the landfill on the First Nation.

Kematch and McKay were convicted in 2008 of first-degree murder in connection to the death.

Make registration mandatory, group says

The Sinclair inquiry is looking at how CFS officials handled the girl's case and why her death went undiscovered for months.

Miriam Browne of the Manitoba Institute of Social Workers testified on Tuesday that Manitoba is the only province in Canada in which registration is not mandatory for social workers.

"There are a number of people who use the title 'social worker' who would not meet the qualifications for registration and, in my view, are not social workers," she told the inquiry.

Introducing laws to regulate the social work field would ensure accountability and define minimum standards, Browne said.

The Manitoba government has appointed a board to hear concerns and get the legislation enacted.