A child protection worker told a Manitoba inquiry on Monday that her department was understaffed by 50 per cent at the time Phoenix Sinclair was in care.

Tracy Forbes worked at the central intake unit for Winnipeg Child and Family Services in 2004 when she got a referral to check on the well-being of Phoenix.

The girl's mother — Samantha Kematch — had started claiming child benefits and there were concerns for Phoenix's safety, Forbes testified.

At the time, there were three social workers in the unit doing the work of six, and that's how it was from 2001 to 2007, she said.

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"I would work through lunches, I would stay late, and I would take work home on the weekends and in the evenings. It was the only way I could actually manage the workload," said Forbes, who had earlier testified she did not have time to review the file of Phoenix's biological father, Steve Sinclair, who had since split from Kematch.

Though she met with higher-ups to express her concerns about the workload, Forbes said nothing changed. In fact, it got worse. She eventually left the agency's intake department because of those workload issues, she said.

Phoenix spent much of her life in and out of foster care before she was returned to her Kematch and her boyfriend Karl McKay.

Forbes said she first met McKay when trying to track down Kematch and Phoenix for a visit. The couple had moved with Phoenix to the Fisher River First Nation, about 150 kilometres north of the city.

Did not check McKay's background

Forbes did not, however, run McKay's name through the agency's computer file system because it wasn't practice at the time.

The inquiry learned that had Forbes checked into McKay's past, she would have found four files on him, containing hundreds of pages documenting previous child apprehensions, alcohol abuse and violence, including at least three arrests for assault on a young woman.

Without any of this knowledge, Forbes downgraded Phoenix's risk level from high to low and closed the file.

One year later, Phoenix was dead.

"It's easy, in hindsight, knowing that Phoenix died at the hands of Karl to say, 'Yes, for sure, I would have done this.' But I don't know what I would have done. I may have done a prior contact check and a criminal record check," Forbes told the inquiry.

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.

At the murder trial, court was told that Phoenix was neglected, beaten, forced to eat her own vomit and sometimes shot with a BB gun.

After Phoenix's death, Kematch continued to collect welfare benefits with the child listed as a dependent.

Forbes said even if she did know about McKay's past, that may not have changed the outcome.

Privacy rules would have prevented her from saying anything to Kematch about McKay, Forbes told the inquiry.

"We could not go out there and say, 'Look, he has this child welfare history or he has this type of criminal record,'" she said.

"We could tell her, based on information that we have, [that] he's believed to pose a high risk or a medium risk, whatever, to herself or Phoenix."

Standards in Manitoba's child protection system have since been upgraded so workers now have access to information such as the criminal backgrounds of caregivers' partners.

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