Inquiry into Manitoba girl's death rises to more than $6 million

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WINNIPEG - The cost of an inquiry into the death of a young Manitoba girl has risen to more than $6 million — a figure expected to climb as the hearing encounters yet another delay.

The Manitoba government has approved another $1.4 million, for the fiscal year that ends March 31, to fund the review of Phoenix Sinclair's death.

That's on top of $4.7 million originally budgeted and more money is expected in the upcoming fiscal year.

Finance Minister Stan Struthers says it's important that the inquiry have enough funding to complete its task.

It is examining how child welfare failed to protect Phoenix, a former foster child who was beaten to death after social workers gave her back to her mother.

The inquiry started last fall but has been delayed several times, most recently over concerns that one lawyer is in a conflict of interest because he represents regional child-welfare authorities and some employees.

Struthers said Wednesday the government is willing to put up extra money.

"(Inquiry commissioner) Ted Hughes, he's got the flexibility to do a thorough job. That's why we brought him here, and this requires funding," Struthers said.

"We've said all along that one of the priorities of our government is protecting kids and ... if it means assigning dollars through the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry, we will be doing that as well."

Phoenix was five years old when she was beaten to death by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and the woman's boyfriend, Karl McKay, in the basement of their home on the Fisher River reserve. Her death went undetected for nine months until McKay's former common-law partner learned of the death and called police.

Phoenix had spent much of her life in foster care or with family friends in Winnipeg. The inquiry has already heard that social workers sometimes lost track of who had care of the girl, failed to monitor the family and closed Phoenix's file without seeing her.

Kematch and McKay moved to the reserve in the spring of 2005. They neglected and abused Phoenix before a final deadly assault in June of that year. They buried her near the Fisher River landfill and continued to collect welfare benefits with Phoenix listed as a dependent.

Kematch and McKay were convicted of first-degree murder in 2008 and sentenced to life in prison.

The inquiry suffered setbacks from the start. The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union, which represents social workers, tried to scuttle it by arguing it didn't have the authority to look at systemic issues. The union also fought for a publication ban that would have prevented social workers from being identified in the media.

The union lost both battles.

More recently, the hearings have been delayed by concerns that lawyer Kris Saxberg is in a conflict of interest because he represents clients who may be at odds with one another.

Saxberg is the lawyer for regional child-welfare authorities as well as some supervisors and managers. Hughes recently asked the Law Society of Manitoba for an opinion and the society said there is a conflict.

Saxberg, in a letter released Wednesday, informed the inquiry that some of his clients will be getting new lawyers.

The inquiry isn't to resume until April 15.

It was originally set to conclude in May but that date will probably be pushed back. The government recently extended the deadline for Hughes's final report by six months to September and may be forced to push it back further due to the latest delay.