Workers were warned about Karl McKay, Sinclair inquiry told

Child and Family Services officials in Winnipeg had a direct warning about Karl McKay sent to them years before he and Samantha Kematch murdered five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair.
Winnipeg Child and Family Services officials had a direct warning about Karl McKay sent to them years before he and Samantha Kematch murdered five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair, an inquiry into the little girl's death was told. 1:51

Child and Family Services officials in Winnipeg had a direct warning about Karl McKay sent to them years before he and Samantha Kematch murdered five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair.

Miriam Browne was a probation officer before becoming executive director of the Manitoba Institute of Registered Social Workers (MIRSS).

Browne told the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry on Wednesday that she met with McKay when he was on probation in 1999 for assaulting his partner.

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Browne said McKay was the only client she was ever scared of.

"It was quite possible he might become violent in the office. I felt physically intimidated by Mr. McKay," she told the inquiry.

"I was a probation officer for 12 years, and it was very unusual that I felt unsafe in my office."

Browne sent a letter to Winnipeg CFS, warning of McKay's violent attitude and potential threats to both his partner at the time and the partner's children.

The inquiry has been told over the past few days of testimony that CFS workers were overworked and might have missed an opportunity to save Phoenix.

And that meant the agency didn't perform a background check on McKay, who by then was the new boyfriend of Kematch, Phoenix's biological mother.

The inquiry heard 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.

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

Browne, whose organization is the only group of professionally-registered social workers in Manitoba, testified on Wednesday morning that in 2006, she received a letter from 10 inner-city child protection officers sounding the alarm about increasing workload and complexity of cases they faced.

"We are worn and we are troubled about our collective response to child protective issues," the letter stated.

However, because only two of the workers were registered, and it was not the institute's role to deal with workplace issues, Browne said MIRSS could do very little.

"We did not see that as our role," she said.

Manitoba is the only province in which registration for social workers is not mandatory.

Phoenix never made it to school, says principal

The inquiry also heard on Wednesday from Angeline Ramkissoon, who was the principal at a Winnipeg school Phoenix was supposed to attend in 2004.

Ramkissoon testified that Kematch came to Wellington School on on Aug. 30, 2004, to register Phoenix.

The mother left much of the information about her daughter blank on the school forms, including what fears Phoenix had, Ramkissoon said.

Kematch did write on the form that Phoenix's only responsibility at home was to clean up after herself, and washing her face calms her down, the principal recalled.

School records indicated Phoenix was not present for a number of days that month. Ramkissoon said after interviewing staff, it became clear the little girl never showed up.

"There was no reason for us to not believe that she had gone back to the reserve because it is a common practice, especially at age four," Ramkissoon told the inquiry.

Ramkissoon said CFS workers called the school a year later, looking for Phoenix.

Ramkissoon said after Phoenix's death, she instituted a school policy to follow up on where nursery-age children go if they don't come to school.

Kematch lied about Phoenix's death

On Wednesday afternoon, a hospital social worker identified only as Source of Reference No. 4 testified about meeting with Kematch a number of times during two pregnancies she had in 2004 and 2005.

The witness's reports indicated that McKay was the father of Kematch's two new children and he was involved in Phoenix's care.

Even though a report was filed with Winnipeg CFS in one case, no one did any background checks on McKay, the inquiry heard.

The social worker testified that during one visit, in October 2005, Kematch said Phoenix was fine and things were well at home.

It was later determined that Phoenix died on or around June 14, 2005, the inquiry heard.

There was no way the social worker could have known about Phoenix's death, as medical charts from Fisher River and the Winnipeg hospital where Kematch was being treated indicated that the girl was alive.