Inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes rejected a request Thursday from the social workers union for a publication ban on the identities of the workers. The union had argued that having the workers named could expose them to harassment and could make it harder for child welfare to retain and attract employees.
"The evidence adduced by the applicants ... does not show that publication of names or images of social workers in the media 1) will subject them to greater personal safety risk than if they were to remain anonymous; or 2) will cause a serious risk to the child-welfare system," Hughes said in a written decision.
"The public will be educated about a system which is often shrouded in secrecy. Central to this inquiry is the question of why a young child was dead for nine months before authorities ... became aware. Exactly who played a role in Phoenix's life, through the provision of child-welfare services and otherwise, is not a trivial part of Phoenix's story."
The ruling was welcomed by Jeff Gindin, the lawyer for Phoenix Sinclair's biological father and foster mother.
"In my view, the public's right to know is far more important than (the social workers') inconvenience or embarrassment," Gindin told reporters outside Thursday's hearing.
The inquiry is to start in September and some identities will be protected. Hughes ruled Thursday that a publication ban will apply to seven people who called child-welfare offices with concerns about Phoenix over the years.
A publication ban on people who report potential abuse or neglect is standard, said Sherri Walsh, the lawyer leading the inquiry.
"The legislation grants them anonymity as a matter of policy, so that people are not afraid to phone in a concern about a child in need of protection, for fear of recrimination," she said.
Phoenix spent most of her life in foster care before being returned to her mother Samantha Kematch in 2004. The girl suffered near-constant abuse by Kematch and her boyfriend Karl McKay. Phoenix died when she was five years old after a brutal assault in June 2005 in the basement of the family's home on the Fisher River reserve north of Winnipeg.
Child-welfare workers had earlier closed the girl's file and decided all was well. A few months before she died, a social worker went to check on her and was told she was asleep. He saw a sibling playing outside who appeared healthy and decided that was enough.
According to evidence in the first-degree murder trial that led to life sentences for Kematch and McKay, Phoenix was frequently confined, shot with a BB gun, forced to eat her own vomit and neglected.
Her death went undetected for nine months, and Kematch and McKay continued to claim welfare benefits with Phoenix listed as a dependent. Eventually, a relative called police and the girl's body was found in a shallow grave near the Fisher River dump.
The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union was disappointed with the ruling, but said it would not appeal it. Union lawyer Garth Smorang warned, however, that the openness of the inquiry may affect how workers testify.
"If you're testifying on a Thursday, and your three co-workers who testified Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday have all been vilified and pilloried by some media organization over the last three days, you can't simply ignore that fact when you walk into the room," Smorang said.
"They're human beings. They're going to do their best. The circumstances are going to be a lot more personal than we would have liked them to be, but that's the commissioner's ruling."
Eighteen of the 20 unionized workers who will testify at the inquiry are still front-line workers, he added.