Phoenix Sinclair assessment altered, says CFS worker

A Winnipeg child welfare worker has told an inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair that her assessment of the little girl had been altered.

Child and family services workers lost track of girl, inquiry hears

Phoenix Sinclair is shown in a family photo released by the Commission of Inquiry looking into her 2005 death. (Phoenix Sinclair inquiry)

A Winnipeg child welfare worker has told an inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair that her assessment of the little girl had been altered.

Debbie De Gale, who worked in the crisis response unit at Winnipeg Child and Family Services (CFS) in 2004, testified on Monday that she took a call in May of that year from a person who was concerned that Phoenix was back in the care of her mother, Samantha Kematch.

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De Gale told the inquiry that upon reviewing the family's file, De Gale said she determined that the child faced a "severe risk" of neglect and indicated that a CFS response was required within 24 hours.

But De Gale said her supervisor, Diana Verrier, changed her report to lower the risk and loosen the CFS response period to 48 hours.

"They proceeded to show me my report, and I said that report has had to have been altered because I recall other details of things that I did on this particular case that are not in the report," De Gale told the inquiry.

The original document that was filed by De Gale was entered as evidence at the inquiry.

Assessments changed regularly, De Gale says

De Gale testified that Verrier regularly altered the response times on her safety assessments in 2004 without consulting her.

CFS worker Debbie De Gale told the inquiry on Monday that her supervisor regularly altered response times on her safety assessments without consulting her. (CBC)

De Gale said she recalls "telling her I would appreciate her not doing that to my reports and that if she wanted something changed, she needed to come discuss it with me."

Verrier seemed to appreciate the feedback at the time, De Gale said.

But Kris Saxberg, a lawyer representing Verrier and CFS authorities, tried to poke holes in De Gale's testimony during cross-examination.

"It's also the case that your supervisor's entitled to change it, correct?" Saxberg asked De Gale, who replied, "No."

"You don't believe your supervisor's entitled to change it?" Saxberg said.

"Not my report," said De Gale.

"Well, isn't your supervisor ultimately responsible for determining what the response time is?" Saxberg asked.

"Yes," De Gale replied.

The inquiry heard earlier on Monday that CFS officials were unaware in April 2004 that Phoenix was living with Kematch — the same woman who would help kill the girl.

The revelation at the inquiry is the latest evidence that social workers were frequently unable to monitor the child before she was beaten to death at the age of five in June 2005.

'Some discrepancy' identified

"There was some discrepancy with regards to where this child should be placed and who should have custody," said a social assistance case worker, who cannot be identified under a court-ordered publication ban.

The inquiry is examining how Manitoba child welfare failed to protect Phoenix, who was taken days after her birth from her parents, Samantha Kematch and Steve Sinclair.

Kematch and Sinclair had violent pasts and substance abuse problems and were so uninterested in being parents that they didn't buy baby clothes or supplies before the girl's birth.

The inquiry has already been told that Phoenix spent her first few months in foster care, but was returned to her parents, who increasingly left her in the care of friends.

Over the ensuing years, social workers were frequently unaware of who was taking care of the girl and failed to inspect the homes where she was living.

In April 2004, Kematch, who had been out of the picture for months, showed up at the home of Rohan Stephenson, a family friend, and took Phoenix.

Social workers had told Stephenson he was not to give Phoenix to either of her parents — or anyone else — without telling them, but he ignored the warning.

Mom sought welfare payment increase

Kematch's actions only came to light, the inquiry was told Monday, because she applied to have her welfare payments increased by listing Phoenix as a dependent living with her.

The social assistance case worker checked into the family's file and found out that Kematch was not supposed to have Phoenix.

In May 2004, the case worker alerted social workers at Winnipeg Child and Family Services who had dealt with the family, but got mixed messages.

"Sorry to keep bugging you, but other people from the agency are really confusing me," the worker wrote in an email, released at the inquiry, to intake worker Lisa Mirochnick.

"They state that their files say nothing about the child not being allowed to stay with mother Samantha Kematch, but I do believe you told me that the child is to not to be in the mother's care."

Social workers investigated, but an internal review by the Winnipeg agency showed they didn't manage a face-to-face meeting with Kematch until July.

The following spring, Phoenix was beaten to death by Kematch and her boyfriend Karl McKay.

The couple's murder trial was told Phoenix had been subjected to horrific abuse and neglect. She had been shot with a BB gun, forced to eat her own vomit and had been frequently confined to a makeshift pen on the concrete basement floor.

Her death went undetected for nine months.

With files from The Canadian Press