09/07/2012 04:29 EDT | Updated 11/07/2012 05:12 EST

Phoenix Sinclair inquiry on hold again

The Manitoba Court of Appeal has halted the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry while the court considers a procedural question.

The ruling came Friday afternoon during the inquiry's third day of hearing testimony. The issue before the court involves access to transcripts of interviews, conducted by inquiry staff, of potential witnesses.

The head of the inquiry, Ted Hughes, refused to release the documents and the Appeal Court was asked to review that decision. The court said it would consider the issue as quickly as it can.

"[T]his court will move as expeditiously as possible to have the matter heard and determined in the shortest time possible," Justice Marc Monnin said in the decision.

According to the ruling, the next available date for such a hearing is in October.

"The fact that we may have more information that might enhance the procedure is a good thing," Jeff Gindin, a lawyer representing the biological father and foster mother of Phoenix, said Friday. "If the delay isn't too long, then it's probably good overall. But we don't want a lengthy delay."

Gindin estimated the transcripts may amount to some 10,000 pages.

If the Appeal Court decides to allow access to the pages, the inquiry may be delayed until possibly December, the commission's lead lawyer said.

"It may be that we don't start [again] until November or December. It's hard to predict," Sherri Walsh said.

Minister of Family Services Jennifer Howard issued a statement Friday expressing her frustration with the added delay.

"This government called the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry to ensure questions surrounding the exceptional and tragic circumstances of her death are answered publically," her statement said. "While I accept the ruling of Judge Marc Monnin, I share the frustrations of many Manitobans who want to see this inquiry continue as quickly as possible."

Before the inquiry was halted, witnesses were providing information about the state of Manitoba's child welfare system and details on how the Sinclair case was handled.

Manitoba's child welfare system needs more social workers and earlier intervention, a social worker told an inquiry examining the death of the five-year-old.

The inquiry, which began Tuesday in Winnipeg, has been looking at circumstances surrounding the little girl's death in June 2005 on the Fisher River First Nation.

Phoenix had been neglected and repeatedly abused by Samantha Kematch, her biological mother, and Karl McKay, her stepfather. She had been taken into custody by Manitoba child welfare officials at least twice in her short life — once at birth and again three years later — but she was returned to Kematch each time.

Marnie Saunderson initially handled Phoenix's file when the newborn was taken into custody shortly after her birth in April 2000.

Saunderson explained to the inquiry, which is looking at the circumstances surrounding the death of Phoenix in 2005, of the tremendous burden that social workers face in Manitoba's child and family services (CFS) system.

When Saunderson began work in 1994, she had a caseload of about 40, a number that was simply unmanageable.

But even a lower caseload of 20 does not make for a lighter workload, Saunderson said, as some individual cases involve as many as six children, all of whom need to be assessed.

Another social worker who assessed Kematch after Phoenix was born testified on Thursday that the mother was not prepared for her child and had been a victim of abuse as a child herself.

Within a day of Phoenix's birth, the social worker referred Kematch's case to CFS and the little girl was apprehended, the inquiry heard.

'Business of hope'

On Friday, Saunderson testified that when Phoenix was initially removed from Kematch, it was not meant to be permanent.

"We're a bit in the business of hope and the idea that people can get help for some of the issues that plagues them — that, at some point, some of the cycles can be broken," Saunderson told the inquiry.

Saunderson spoke of the enormous challenges in the child welfare system, such as the effects of poverty on families and children at risk.

She weighed in on Kematch's child and family-care file, describing it as a "very terribly sad story" that is not unique to the CFS system.

Kematch's file indicated that she had a variety of behavioural issues, including violence, and posed a threat to adults and other youth, the inquiry heard.

Saunderson also noted the burden of heavy caseloads and workloads on social workers who often have to spend hours on lengthy home visits, assessments and court appearances.

Saunderson admitted that in her 20 years on the job, she probably didn't get to every child she should have seen, but she tried her best to fulfill the demands of the job.

"There needs to be more social workers. There are not enough social workers to do the job, in my opinion," she said.

"Also, I think outside resources, preventative measures — ways that people can intervene with families before they get into our system — would be very helpful."

Child was confined, beaten

The inquiry has been hearing testimony on Friday afternoon from Saunderson's former supervisor, Andrew Orobko.

Orobko echoed some of the concerns Saunderson and other witnesses raised this week about the workload CFS workers face.

"There were times during our tenure there where I simply held the file and I held it until capacity developed for somebody to be able to deal with it," he told the inquiry.

Orobko also testified that he met with Kematch and Sinclair shortly after the child's birth. Orobko said he put together a seven-step plan for the young parents to determine if they might someday be able to parent their daughter.

He said he noted that he felt Sinclair was mature and thoughtful, but felt Kematch was stoic and unresponsive. The social worker said he wondered whether she was affected by a cognitive disorder and ordered a psychiatric assessment of the young mother.

Phoenix was killed on the Fisher River reserve in June 2005, but it was not until nine months later that her body was found wrapped in plastic in an unmarked shallow grave near the community's landfill.

Kematch and McKay were convicted in 2008 of first-degree murder in connection with Phoenix's death.

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

The inquiry was set up to look at how Manitoba's CFS officials handled Phoenix's case and why her death went undiscovered for months.