11/14/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 01/13/2013 05:12 EST

Manitoba woman who killed daughter 'uninterested' in parenting: social worker

WINNIPEG - A social worker says a Manitoba woman who beat her daughter to death seemed uninterested in parenting right from the start and appeared to have a possible mental disability.

Samantha Kematch had already had another child taken from her and lost care of her daughter, Phoenix Sinclair, days after the girl was born in April 2000, Andrew Orobko testified at an inquiry Wednesday.

Orobko was a supervising social worker who met with Kematch and Steve Sinclair, Phoenix's biological father.

"Young parents, traumatic upbringings, possible presence on mom's part of some mental disability, mental disorder — the list of issues here that were working against this couple, it's a huge list," Orobko told the inquiry into Phoenix's death.

Phoenix spent most of her life in foster care before being given back to Kematch in 2004. Months later, the five-year-old girl was beaten to death by Kematch and Kematch's common-law husband, Karl McKay, in the basement of the family's home. Kematch and McKay were convicted of first-degree murder.

The inquiry is to examine how Manitoba child welfare failed to protect Phoenix, why she was handed back to Kematch, why her file was closed despite the repeated abuse she suffered, and why her death went undetected until nine months later when a relative called police.

Despite Orobko's concerns about Kematch, he was hopeful she would be able to regain custody of Phoenix. He testified that he drew up a three-month order — the minimum and "least intrusive" time frame allowed — which required Phoenix to be taken into foster care. The order also required Kematch to undergo a psychological assessment, attend parenting classes and meet weekly with her daughter.

The aim was to see if Kematch would develop parenting skills and address any psychological issues that made her ambivalent about parenting either of her kids, Orobko said.

"The likelihood of all of those things occurring within three months ... I think that was very ambitious, very ambitious. But a lot of those things could have gotten at least started during that three months."

The inquiry has already heard that Kematch had a troubled past. She had been in foster care herself, had stolen cars, had hung out with gang members and had run away from foster homes. Months after she turned 18, she gave birth to Phoenix.

Kematch was on welfare and hadn't bought a crib or other baby items, another social worker testified in September.

Kematch's story was not unusual for Winnipeg's North End neighbourhood, Orobko said. One of the poorest urban districts in Canada, the North End suffers from high rates of illiteracy, addiction and violence, along with an "octopus-like grasp" that gangs have on the area, he said.

Despite her troubles, Kematch, along with the biological father, made progress over the summer of 2000 and followed Orobko's three-month plan, another social worker testified Wednesday.

"They were showing us, over the time that I had the case, motivation to parent," said Kerri-Lynn Greeley, who took over Phoenix's file from Orobko.

"They were meeting all the expectations that were laid out in the plan."

The couple attended eight parenting classes and Kematch lined up an appointment with a psychologist for an assessment, said Greeley. The psychologist is scheduled to testify next week.

The inquiry has yet to delve into why child-welfare workers removed Phoenix from a foster home and gave her back to her mother and what, if any, monitoring followed that 2004 decision.

Inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes appeared frustrated Wednesday by court challenges that have delayed the inquiry. He opened the day's proceedings by asking all lawyers involved to focus on the inquiry's aim to improve child welfare.

"Let no one lose sight of the fact that that is why we are here. The centrepiece of our work, as a lasting memorial to the short life of little Phoenix Sinclair, is the protection of all children," Hughes said.

"The importance of proceeding forward forthwith, hopefully, from here on in down a straight road, should be obvious to all who have an interest and concern for the well-being of children throughout Manitoba."

The inquiry was called more than a year ago, but immediately became mired in controversy.

The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union lost a court battle to limit the inquiry's scope, then lost a battle to hide the identity of social workers who are to testify.

More recently, the inquiry was delayed when regional child welfare authorities tried to get full transcripts of witness interviews done by the lawyer leading the hearings. That motion was rejected by the Manitoba Court of Appeal.

The inquiry is to hear from approximately 140 witnesses between now and the end of May, barring any more legal disputes. Hughes said Wednesday he expects to issue his findings next September.