WINNIPEG - From the moment she was born, Phoenix Sinclair joined a multi-generation cycle of abuse and was flagged as being in possible need of foster care, an inquiry into the Manitoba girl's death was told Thursday.
The girl's mother, Samantha Kematch, who would later be convicted of murdering her, 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.
The social worker spoke with Kematch in a Winnipeg hospital shortly after she gave birth to Phoenix. A nurse had flagged Kematch, then an 18-year-old woman on welfare, as a concern in part because she had received no prenatal care.
During a 15-minute chat, Kematch told the social worker she had no crib or other baby items, was emotionally and financially unprepared for the baby, and had another child who had been seized by child and family services.
The worker asked why her child had been taken.
"Her answer to me, and I put this in quotes, was 'because they thought I would hurt him.' My next question would be well, why would someone think that, what would be the reason for that, and her answer to me was she described that she herself was an abused child," the worker testified.
Other child welfare workers followed up and, in a written report, said Kematch was "quite immature, and it is unclear whether she could grasp and follow through on the necessary skills of parenting." Phoenix's biological father seemed more mature but indicated he was unable to care for the baby financially, the report reads.
Phoenix was taken from Kematch later that week. Even as she was carried out of the hospital to a car that would drive her to a shelter, her mother paid little attention.
Kematch didn't help dress her baby and chatted with a friend while her infant was carried away, another social worker testified Thursday.
"Ms. Kematch did seem somewhat disinterested," Marnie Saunderson said.
"Generally, people are fairly emotional when you're about to leave the hospital with their baby. It's a pretty natural reaction."
Phoenix would spend most of her short life in foster care before being returned to Kematch in 2004.
She died the following year at the age of five, after a series of brutal assaults, and her death went unnoticed for several months. Kematch and her boyfriend, Karl McKay, were later convicted of first-degree murder.
According to evidence at the murder trial, Phoenix was frequently confined, shot with a BB gun, forced to eat her own vomit and neglected.
She was killed in the basement of the family's home on the Fisher River reserve and buried near the community's landfill. Her mother continued to claim welfare benefits with Phoenix listed as a dependent. Eventually, a relative called police and the ruse was uncovered.
Child welfare workers had closed Phoenix's file in early 2005, just a few months before her death. One social worker had gone to check on her and was told she was asleep. The worker saw a sibling playing outside who appeared healthy and left.
The inquiry is slated to run for almost three months and hear from dozens of witnesses. A key focus will be on why Phoenix was returned to her mother and why her file was closed.
The inquiry also heard Thursday that Kematch herself had a long and troubled history in foster care. Her parents were chronic alcoholics, a close relative had committed suicide, and her mother physically abused her. She was aggressive and violent and would frequently run away from foster homes and hang out with gang members.
"She has secretly been involved in group sexual activities, car theft, drugs and alcohol. Her peer group is a street gang," reads a report prepared in 1997, when Kematch was 15, by the agency that oversaw her, Cree Nation Child and Family Care.
Another report from the agency, written when after she turned 18 and aged out of the foster care system, held out little hope for Kematch.
"Samantha has not dealt with the family issues of death, suicide, alcohol abuse and rejection by her mother. She has difficulties expressing her feelings concerning the family situation and refuses to discuss them and ... is refusing counselling," the report reads.
Kematch gave birth to Phoenix seven months later.