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Phoenix Sinclair inquiry hearings resume in Winnipeg

11/14/2012 06:02 EST | Updated 01/14/2013 05:12 EST
The public inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair, a five-year-old Manitoba girl who was abused and neglected by her mother and stepfather, resumed on Wednesday with testimony from two social workers who were involved in her care.

The inquiry has resumed following a two-month delay. Hearings were halted on Sept. 7 — two days after they began — due to legal wrangling.

Wednesday's proceedings began with a strongly-worded statement from inquiry Commissioner Ted Hughes, who outlined his intention to ask for a four-month extension on his final report — something he says he will now only be able to deliver by Sept. 30, 2013.

"Let no one lose sight of the fact that that is why we are here. The centrepiece of our work, as a lasting memorial to the short life of little Phoenix Sinclair, is the protection of all children," Hughes said.

"The importance of proceeding forward forthwith, hopefully, from here on in down a straight road, should be obvious to all who have an interest and concern for the well-being of children throughout Manitoba."

Hughes also noted that this will be one of the most expensive provincial inquiries in Manitoba's history.

Child was neglected, abused

Phoenix had been neglected, confined and repeatedly abused by Samantha Kematch, her biological mother, and Karl McKay, her stepfather.

While Phoenix was killed on the Fisher River First Nation in June 2005, it was not until nine months later that her body was found, wrapped in plastic, in an unmarked shallow grave near the local landfill.

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

The inquiry, which began Sept. 5, is looking at how Manitoba's child and family services officials handled Phoenix's case and why her death in went undiscovered for months.

The little girl had been taken into custody by Manitoba child welfare officials at least twice in her life — once at birth and again three years later — but she was returned to Kematch each time.

On Wednesday afternoon, the inquiry heard testimony from Kerry-Lynn Greeley, a social worker who was assigned to Phoenix's file shortly after the girl was born in April 2000.

Greeley testified that she felt equipped to handle the work within the child and family services (CFS) system. An integral part of the job was taking notes, she added.

Greeley said when she stopped working for CFS in October 2000, she prepared a transfer summary of Phoenix's case for the next worker.

Mom didn't seem ready, says social worker

Earlier on Wednesday, the inquiry heard from Andrew Orobko, a supervising social worker who encountered Phoenix's file when she first entered the CFS system.

The inquiry had heard in September that Phoenix was apprehended by CFS workers days after she was born, as it was determined that Kematch was not ready for motherhood.

Orobko, who met with Kematch and Steve Sinclair, Phoenix's biological father, testified that Kematch seemed uninterested in parenting from the start and appeared to have a possible mental disability.

"Young parents, traumatic upbringings, possible presence on mom's part of some mental disability, mental disorder — the list of issues here that were working against this couple, it's a huge list," Orobko told the inquiry.

The inquiry has heard that Kematch had been in foster care herself, had stolen cars, had hung out with gang members and had run away from foster homes. She had previously had another child taken from her.

Months after Kematch turned 18, she gave birth to Phoenix. At the time, the mother was on welfare and had not purchased a crib or other baby items, another social worker testified in September.

But despite his concerns about Kematch, Orobko said he was hopeful she would be able to regain custody of Phoenix. He testified that he drew up a three-month order — the minimum and "least intrusive" time frame allowed — which required Phoenix to be taken into foster care.

The order also required Kematch to undergo a psychological assessment, attend parenting classes and meet weekly with her daughter.

The aim was to see if Kematch would develop parenting skills and address any psychological issues that made her ambivalent about parenting either of her kids, Orobko said.

"The likelihood of all of those things occurring within three months … I think that was very ambitious, very ambitious. But a lot of those things could have gotten at least started during that three months," he said.

Supervisor's notes destroyed

Phoenix's case did not stand out as anything special at the time, Orobko said, adding that CFS workers faced a high workload at the time.

But the inquiry heard that Orobko has virtually no notes from that period because he destroyed them in 2010, even though it was likely by then that an inquiry would be held into Phoenix's death.

"It would be better if you had those notes," Jeff Gindin, the lawyer representing Steve Sinclair and Phoenix's foster mother, said to Orobko.

"The notes were just reflective of personnel matters or performance matters with staff," Orobko replied.

"[Was] there anything in those notes that pertained in any way, shape or form to these proceedings? Like, not at all."

It was later revealed that Orobko should never have had those notes after he left the CFS agency where he worked.

Policies state that no agency supervisory notes should ever be destroyed, and they must always remain with the agency.

The Phoenix Sinclair inquiry is to hear from approximately 140 witnesses between now and the end of May, barring any more legal disputes.

The inquiry was halted in September because four child and family services authorities wanted access to full transcripts from interviews that inquiry staff had conducted with potential witnesses.

The Manitoba Court of Appeal rejected the authorities' request last month, therefore allowing the inquiry hearings to continue in Winnipeg.

Had the court allowed the agencies to access the transcripts, it could have resulted in months of delays.

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