09/05/2012 11:58 EDT | Updated 11/05/2012 05:12 EST

Inquiry begins into 'invisible' girl's death and Manitoba child welfare system

WINNIPEG - An inquiry into the death of a young Manitoba girl will examine how she was abused and neglected for months, then killed and buried, all without the knowledge of authorities.

The inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair opened Wednesday with a promise by the lead lawyer that the hearing will be a thorough examination of the province's child welfare system.

Sherri Walsh told the inquiry the evidence will focus on how Phoenix was failed by virtually everyone around her.

"One of the central themes of this inquiry, quite plainly, is to consider how it is that in our society, a small child can become so invisible," Walsh said in her opening statement.

"Invisible to an entire community, one which includes social service agencies, schools, neighbours friends and family. So invisible as to literally disappear."

To drive home the point, Walsh opened the proceedings by showing photographs of Phoenix as a toddler in foster care, smiling and playing with toys.

Phoenix spent most of her life in a foster home before being returned to her mother, Samantha Kematch, in 2004.

She died the following year at the age of five, after a series of brutal assaults, and her death went unnoticed for several months. Kematch and her boyfriend, Karl McKay, were later convicted of first-degree murder.

According to evidence at the murder trial, Phoenix was frequently confined, shot with a BB gun, forced to eat her own vomit and neglected.

She was killed in the basement of the family's home on the Fisher River reserve and buried near the community's landfill. Her mother continued to claim welfare benefits with Phoenix listed as a dependent. Eventually, a relative called police and the ruse was uncovered.

Child welfare workers had closed Phoenix's file in early 2005, just a few months before her death. One social worker had gone to check on her and was told she was asleep. The worker saw a sibling playing outside who appeared healthy and left.

The wide-ranging inquiry is scheduled to run for three months, and will look at look at broader social issues, including why aboriginal children make up the vast majority of kids in foster care.

It will also examine the caseloads of social workers and reforms that were made in the last decade that may have taken a toll on employees.

The first witness at the inquiry testified that the Winnipeg Child and Family Services agency, which was in charge of Phoenix's file, was dealing with a lot of uncertainty in 2005.

Half of the agency's workers were facing pending transfers to newly-created aboriginal-run agencies under a government initiative known as devolution. As well, the agency's policies governing how workers do their jobs were being changed.

"(There) was just an increase in the amount of work workers were required to do related to providing services to families," Alana Brownlee, the agency's chief executive officer, told the inquiry Wednesday.

On Thursday, the inquiry will hear from the first of several people who called authorities with concerns about Phoenix's care.