Phoenix Sinclair's mom wasn't ready for child, inquiry told

A social worker who assessed the mother of Phoenix Sinclair had concerns about the woman's parenting ability, a public inquiry in Winnipeg into the little girl's death has heard.

Repeatedly abused 5-year-old girl who died in 2005

Social workers who cared for Phoenix Sinclair testify in Day 2 of a public inquiry into the five-year-old girl's death. 2:21

A social worker who assessed the mother of Phoenix Sinclair had concerns about the woman's parenting ability, a public inquiry in Winnipeg into the little girl's death has heard.

The inquiry, in its second day, is looking at circumstances surrounding the death in 2005 of Phoenix, who had been neglected and repeatedly abused by Samantha Kematch, her biological mother, and by Karl McKay, the stepfather.

Phoenix Sinclair in an undated photo released at a provincial public inquiry this week. (Phoenix Sinclair inquiry)

The child had been apprehended by Manitoba child welfare officials at least twice in her short life, but she was returned to Kematch each time.

Kematch was first assessed after Phoenix was born in April 2000. She was unprepared for motherhood and had been a victim of abuse as a child herself, a social worker testified.

"In terms of her readiness, 'I don't know' was her response to me, so I might use the word ambivalent because this is a parent saying to me 'I'm just not sure about parenting this child,"' the social worker, who cannot be identified under a publication ban, told the inquiry.

Kematch did not have formula, blankets or even a crib for her newborn.

The inquiry was told that Kematch informed the social worker her first son was apprehended and made a permanent ward of Manitoba's child and family services (CFS) system, as workers thought she would hurt him because she herself had been abused as a child.

Apprehended soon after birth

Within a day of Phoenix's birth, the social worker referred Kematch's case to CFS, the inquiry was told.

Also testifying on Thursday was Marnie Saunderson, a social worker who initially handled Phoenix's file when the newborn was apprehended by CFS workers on April 24, 2000.

Saunderson testified that as Phoenix's intake worker, she had to arrange for the infant's care and devise a plan for her.

Some files from Kematch's time in the child welfare system were accidentally sent to Saunderson while she was trying to handle Phoenix's file, she said.

Those files indicated that Kematch had a variety of behavioural issues, including violence, and posed a threat to adults and other youth, the inquiry heard.

Saunderson also said social workers have had difficulty entering important data into the province's CFS database because of a lack of wireless internet access in some areas.

If such information is not entered into the database, other workers would have no way of knowing if there are red flags related to a person or family.

"It's very important to the work we do. We need to know what happened to this family in the past. Perhaps somebody has been put on the child abuse registry ... now we find out they are caring for a small child — that could be a problem," she said.

Kematch and McKay were convicted in 2008 of first-degree murder in connection with Phoenix's death. Both have exhausted their appeals.

According to evidence presented at the murder trial, Phoenix was frequently neglected, confined, shot with a BB gun, and forced to eat her own vomit.

The child was killed in the basement of the family's home on the reserve and buried near the landfill. Her mother continued to claim welfare benefits with Phoenix listed as a dependent.

The inquiry, which is expected to hear from more than 100 witnesses in the coming months, will look at how CFS officials handled Phoenix's case and why her death went undiscovered for months.

It will also explore some broader social issues, including why aboriginal children account for approximately 8,000 of the 9,000 Manitoba children in foster care.

The inquiry will run through March, covering three phases of hearings.

With files from The Canadian Press