POLITICS

Godmother tells inquiry she warned Manitoba social workers not to give baby back

12/12/2012 11:34 EST | Updated 02/11/2013 05:12 EST
WINNIPEG - The godmother of a young Manitoba girl brutally beaten to death told an inquiry Wednesday that she warned social workers two years earlier not to return the child to her father, but they ignored her.

The testimony from Kim Edwards, who cared for Phoenix Sinclair for much of the girl's short life, is the latest evidence that social workers often failed to monitor Phoenix and didn't heed warnings about her troubled parents.

Edwards and her former husband, Rohan Stephenson, cared for Phoenix on many occasions, including the summer of 2003, when the child had been taken from her father Steven Sinclair.

Social workers were called to Sinclair's home and found him partying with suspected gang members. No one was caring for Phoenix, who was three years old at the time.

Two months later, a social worker named Stan Williams phoned Edwards and asked her whether she thought Sinclair, who was her longtime friend, was ready to parent again.

"I said, no, not really," Edwards testified.

"But then, the next day or the day after that, I got a phone call saying, 'We've decided to return Phoenix to her father.'"

Sinclair was drinking and was still grieving following the death of another child in 2001, Edwards said. As well, Phoenix had been with Edwards for so long, the little girl considered Edwards's home her own.

"Everything about her world was at my home."

The inquiry has already heard that Williams, the social worker who called Edwards, ignored another warning at the time. An intake worker assessed Sinclair in 2003 as having a "questionable parenting capacity, along with an unstable home environment, substance abuse issues.''

Yet Williams decided within weeks to start working toward giving Phoenix back to Sinclair. By October, Sinclair had his daughter back officially, although he would continue to leave her for days at a time at Edwards's home.

The inquiry is examining how child welfare failed Phoenix, who bounced between foster care, Edwards's home and her family before she was beaten to death at the age of five by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and her mother's boyfriend, Karl McKay. The girl had suffered horrific physical abuse and neglect. Her death went undetected for nine months.

Phoenix was taken from her parents days after her birth in April 2000. The couple had troubled, violent pasts and was unprepared to care for her, but social workers repeatedly worked toward reuniting the family.

An internal review of the case found that social workers frequently lost track of who had care of Phoenix. It also found that workers failed to enforce conditions on Sinclair and Kematch made prior to the girl's return, including a psychological assessment for Kematch in 2000 and alcohol counselling for Sinclair in 2003.

"From October 2000 to the last contact with this family, actual service was almost non-existent,'' says the review by the Winnipeg Child and Family Services agency.

Sinclair and Kematch separated in 2001 and Sinclair had much more contact with Phoenix over the following two years. But in 2004, Kematch went to Edwards's home and took Phoenix for what was supposed to be a short trip to a nearby mall and playground. She did not return.

Social workers had written to Edwards and her former husband, advising them not to let anyone take Phoenix — especially either parent — without first alerting child welfare. Edwards's former husband has already testified he disobeyed that advice because he had little faith in the system.

Edwards said Wednesday she never saw that letter.

"Had someone told me not to give Phoenix to Samantha, I wouldn't have."

After two or three days, Edwards called the local child welfare agency and police to try to track down Phoenix. She was rebuffed.

"I was given the information that Phoenix was with her mother, and that I was no longer her foster mother, and that Phoenix was no longer my concern," Edwards testified.

Kematch, McKay and Phoenix lived in Winnipeg, then moved to the Fisher River reserve, about 150 kilometres north of the city. There, Phoenix was neglected, beaten, forced to eat her own vomit and sometimes shot with a BB gun. She died after a final beating in June 2005.

After Phoenix's death, Kematch continued to collect welfare benefits with the child listed as a dependent. The girl's death went undetected until the following March. Kematch and McKay were convicted in 2008 of first-degree murder.

Edwards sobbed Wednesday as she recalled learning of Phoenix's death in 2006 and trying to tell her side of the story to child and family services and the Association of Manitoba Chiefs.

"Almost immediately, I started trying to get — to CFS and to the AMC and to everybody — the truth of this little girl and nobody, not one of them, listened."