NEWS

Phoenix Sinclair inquiry report to be released today

01/31/2014 05:03 EST | Updated 04/01/2014 05:59 EDT
The Manitoba government is set to release the final report today from the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry, which examined how the province's child welfare system failed the five-year-old girl before she was murdered by her mother and stepfather in 2005.

Led by Commissioner Ted Hughes, the public inquiry — one of the biggest in Manitoba's history — sat for 91 days and heard testimony from 126 witnesses as it looked at how child and family services (CFS) officials handled Phoenix's case during her brief life.

Details from the inquiry's final report will be released at 11 a.m. CT in Winnipeg.

Billie Schibler, a former provincial children's advocate who had written two prior reviews of Phoenix's death, says she hopes the report will force changes to the system.

"We can't keep doing things the same way as they have been done. We need to do things differently," she told CBC News on Thursday.

"We need to be creative. We need to listen to the findings and recommendations."

Death wasn't detected for 9 months

Phoenix had spent most of her life in and out of foster care before she was returned to the care of her biological mother, Samantha Kematch, and her CFS file was closed in March 2005.

The inquiry was told that Kematch and her boyfriend, Karl McKay, took Phoenix to the Fisher River First Nation, about 150 kilometres north of Winnipeg, where the girl was beaten, shot at with a BB gun and neglected.

In June 2005, Phoenix was beaten and left to die on a basement floor.

Phoenix's death was not detected until nine months later, in March 2006, when one of her stepbrothers reported it to authorities.

Her body was wrapped in plastic and buried in a shallow grave near the reserve's landfill.

Kematch and McKay were convicted in 2008 of first-degree murder in Phoenix's death. They are currently serving life sentences.

Heavy workloads, mass confusion

The Phoenix Sinclair inquiry heard testimony from CFS officials and from social workers who spoke of heavy workloads and a lack of necessary training or technology.

Some testified that a major restructuring of Manitoba's CFS system to make it more culturally appropriate and able to meet the needs of First Nations clients resulted in extensive confusion for staff and lost and misplaced files.

The inquiry also heard from those who were close to Phoenix, including her biological father, Steve Sinclair, and a friend of his, Kim Edwards, who cared for the child at one point.

"She is a child who has been a victim not only of a horrendous murder, but the victim of the incompetency of a system and a province," Edwards told the inquiry in December 2012.

- Read about Kim Edwards's testimony: Part 1 and Part 2

Some who knew Phoenix or her family told the inquiry of their uneasiness in sharing information with authorities, as well as a fear of repercussions if they did so.

"What we need to look at is a big picture here and say, 'How can these things happen in this day and age, in a country as prosperous as ours, in a place where we put children first — or should be putting children first? How does this happen?'" Schibler said.

Some not expecting much from report

Six reports on the CFS system, containing a total of nearly 300 recommendations, have been released in the years since Phoenix died.

Both Schibler and Edwards say they are not expecting much from Hughes's report.

"I'm not anticipating that there's going to be anything new that will evolve from this," said Schibler, who is now CEO of the Métis Child and Family Services Authority.

"I've read many reports out of B.C., I've read reports out of Saskatchewan, I've read reports out of Alberta," said Edwards. "I don't think it's going to change."

Edwards, who had lobbied for the inquiry into Phoenix's death, said she isn't convinced with the Manitoba government's assertion that it has implemented 95 per cent of the recommendations that have been made over the years, including one recommendation that social workers receive better training.

"Do not buy the hype," she said. "Do not buy that the system has changed. I know that it has not."

MORE:cbcNews