POLITICS

Winnipeg woman camps out in front of legislature to protest child welfare

05/22/2013 12:54 EDT | Updated 07/22/2013 05:12 EDT
WINNIPEG - A Manitoba woman who took care of Phoenix Sinclair for much of the girl's short life spent in and out of foster care set up camp on the lawn of the legislature Wednesday and started a hunger protest.

Kim Edwards promised not to eat anything and drink only coffee, soda and water until she gets to talk to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and push for a national royal commission into the province's child welfare.

"Manitoba children need someone to draw the attention of the federal government to the child protection issue in Manitoba," Edwards said as she sent up her small tent Wednesday.

Edwards was a godmother, and often the primary caregiver, for Phoenix — a girl who fell through the cracks of child welfare and was beaten to death at the age of five. A provincial inquiry into, which started last fall, has already heard that social workers frequently lost track of the child and failed to keep tabs on her and her family.

Edwards was by all accounts a loving caregiver. But Phoenix was returned to the care of her biological mother, Samantha Kematch, who would later help beat her to death.

Edwards has standing at the inquiry, has already testified and her lawyers have been able to cross-examine witnesses. But she said the inquiry is not digging deep enough into the case and is not allowing ordinary people to testify about ongoing flaws in child welfare.

"There's no real people in there. There's no real stories. There are social workers in there and there are supervisors and the brass saying there have been changes, but there's nobody in there to dispute the changes that are being made."

The lawyer leading the inquiry, Sherri Walsh, said it was never intended to look at the system as a whole — only to examine what happened in Phoenix's case and whether improvements that were recommended in reviews of her death have been implemented.

"We are set up according to an order in council issued from the (government) and our mandate at law doesn't allow us to look at or review the delivery of services in specific cases other than the services that Phoenix and her family received," Walsh said.

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

The last time social workers visited the family home, just months before Phoenix died, they left without seeing her, decided she was in good hands and closed her file.

Social workers have told the inquiry that improvements have been made since Phoenix's death: better training, more front-line workers and new rules that children must be seen before their files are closed.

But there continued to be tragedies.

In 2007, two-year-old Gage Guimond was given to his great-aunt, Shirley Guimond, despite the fact she had a criminal record. The boy was beaten frequently and died after falling down stairs.

In 2008, 13-month-old Cameron Ouskan died of injuries after being placed in the foster care of Roderick Blacksmith, who faces a charge of second-degree murder.

In 2009, 21-month-old Jaylene Redhead was smothered by her mother, Nicole, at a treatment centre while under child-welfare supervision.

In 2010, then-children's advocate Bonnie Kocsis said in a private report to a legislature budget committee that child welfare was "in a state of chaos.'' Kocsis cited a growing number of kids in care, high staff turnover among social workers and mistrust among foster parents.

Manitoba Family Services Minister Jennifer Howard said inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes has been given a broad mandate to examine the Phoenix Sinclair file.

"We're not giving any advice or any direction to the commissioner about how to carry out the commission of inquiry."

Edwards said the inquiry is not looking at systemic problems and a royal commission is needed.

"There are still children dying in care. It hasn't stopped."

She said she was ordered by legislature security to take down her tent because protesters are not allowed to erect shelters on the building's grounds. She vowed to remain in place with two lawn chairs and a sleeping bag.