Phoenix Sinclair's godmother storms out of inquiry
The former godmother to Phoenix Sinclair gave emotional and explosive testimony on Wednesday at the inquiry into the little girl's death.
Kim Edwards, who cared for Phoenix until the girl turned three, wiped away tears as she told the inquiry on Wednesday morning that social workers ignored her warning about Phoenix's father.
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Edwards spent much of Wednesday testifying about her experiences with Phoenix, the girl's biological parents, and Manitoba Child and Family Services (CFS) officials.
But late in the afternoon, Edwards stormed out of the inquiry room after child welfare agency lawyers asked if they could enter as evidence sealed CFS documents regarding the apprehension of her daughter when Edwards was 17 years old.
Edwards had told the inquiry that CFS officials took her daughter into care for a year and a half because Edwards was in an abusive relationship at the time.
The agency returned Edwards's daughter to her care when her son was born, the inquiry was told.
The lawyers representing the child welfare agencies also asked for a brief adjournment, saying they wanted time to review the sealed CFS file and confirm other testimony.
"It's emotional even without anything like that happening," Jeff Gindin, Edwards's lawyer, told reporters after Wednesday's hearing.
"It's an emotional experience, and then people start to talk about things that are confidential and 25 years ago and probably aren't relevant, and I think in the end it won't be."
Edwards is scheduled to be cross-examined on Thursday morning. At that time, the inquiry will learn if her CFS documents can be entered as evidence.
Parents visited child
Edwards said Phoenix lived with her pretty much full-time for the first three years of the girl's life, visiting her biological parents — Steve Sinclair and Samantha Kematch — from time to time. The couple separated in 2001.
Edwards broke down when she said Kematch did not have a strong relationship with Phoenix, and recalled one day when Kematch came to visit but Phoenix didn't want to go to her.
"That particular day it upset Samantha and she had called her a 'bitchy baby,' and I believe that was the last time that I saw Samantha," Edwards said.
By contrast, Sinclair visited Phoenix often and sometimes took his daughter home for the night, Edwards told the inquiry.
"He played with Phoenix, he interacted with Phoenix. He would put her on [his] lap and they'd play guitar together," she said.
"Like, he was right involved with Phoenix. That was his little girl."
Edwards said during the first two years of Phoenix's life, no one from the province's Child and Family Services agency contacted her.
Returned to father
Then in 2003, a social worker called Edwards to ask her whether Steve Sinclair was fit to parent.
Although Edwards said she believed Sinclair was "awesome" to Phoenix, he was also drinking and still grieving the death of another child, Echo, two years earlier.
So Edwards said she told the social worker, Stan Williams, that Sinclair was not ready to parent.
"But then, the next day or the day after that, I got a phone call saying, 'We've decided to return Phoenix to her father,'" she said.
The inquiry has already heard that Williams ignored another warning at the time.
An intake worker assessed Sinclair in 2003 as having a "questionable parenting capacity, along with an unstable home environment, substance abuse issues."
Yet Williams decided within weeks to start working toward giving Phoenix back to Sinclair. By October of that year, Sinclair had his daughter back officially, although he would continue to leave her for days at a time at Edwards's home.
Phoenix was eventually taken away again and bounced between foster care, Edwards's home and her family before she was beaten to death in 2005, at the age of five, by Kematch and Karl McKay, Kematch's boyfriend.
Phoenix suffered abuse, neglect
The girl had suffered horrific physical abuse and neglect at the hands of Kematch and McKay.
It was not until nine months later, in March 2006, that her body was found, wrapped in plastic, in an unmarked shallow grave near the local landfill on the Fisher River First Nation.
Kematch and McKay were convicted in 2008 of first-degree murder in connection to Phoenix's death.
The Phoenix Sinclair inquiry is looking at how CFS officials handled the girl's case and why her death went undiscovered for months.
The inquiry has already heard that in 2004, Kematch went to Edwards's home and took Phoenix for what was supposed to be a short trip to a nearby mall and playground. She did not return.
Social workers had written to Edwards and her former husband, advising them not to let anyone take Phoenix — especially either parent — without first alerting child welfare.
Edwards's former husband, Rohan Stephenson, testified last week that he disobeyed that advice because he had little faith in the CFS system.
Edwards said on Wednesday that she never saw that letter.
"Had someone told me not to give Phoenix to Samantha, I wouldn't have," she said.
'I was no longer her foster mother'
After two or three days, Edwards called the local child welfare agency and police to try to track down Phoenix. She was rebuffed.
"I was given the information that Phoenix was with her mother, and that I was no longer her foster mother, and that Phoenix was no longer my concern," Edwards testified.
Kematch, McKay and Phoenix lived in Winnipeg, then moved to the Fisher River reserve, about 150 kilometres north of the city. There, Phoenix was neglected, beaten, forced to eat her own vomit and sometimes shot with a BB gun. She died after a final beating in June 2005.
After Phoenix's death, Kematch continued to collect welfare benefits with the child listed as a dependent. The girl's death went undetected until the following March.
Edwards sobbed as she recalled learning of Phoenix's death in 2006 and trying to tell her side of the story to child and family services and the Association of Manitoba Chiefs.
"Almost immediately, I started trying to get — to CFS and to the AMC and to everybody — the truth of this little girl and nobody, not one of them, listened," she told the inquiry.
With files from The Canadian Press