11/15/2012 12:33 EST | Updated 01/15/2013 05:12 EST

Inquiry hears social workers planned to return girl to parents despite concerns

WINNIPEG - An inquiry has heard that a baby girl was returned to her parents less than six months after social workers took her away over concerns that the couple was completely unprepared to take care of her.

"Based on ... the positive reports I was getting from the in-home support worker and the community (and) my own assessment, it was decided with my supervisor and I that Phoenix be returned," Kerri-Lynn Greeley testified Thursday at the hearing into the five-year-old's death.

Phoenix Sinclair would continue to be returned intermittently to her mother, Samantha Kematch, but spent most of her short life in foster care. She died in June 2005 after being neglected, abused and beaten by Kematch and her boyfriend Karl McKay. The couple was convicted of first-degree murder.

The inquiry is examining how Phoenix fell through the cracks of Manitoba child welfare. Why was the girl returned to Kematch? Why was her file closed in 2004 after she was given back for the last time. Why did her death go undetected for nine months while Kematch continued to claim welfare benefits listing Phoenix as a dependant.

The inquiry has already heard the Kematch had a violent and 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 and became too old for the child- welfare system, she gave birth to Phoenix.

Kematch was on welfare and had already had another child taken from her two years earlier. She and Phoenix's biological father, Steve Sinclair, still didn't have a crib, clothes or a car seat for the baby even as they went to the hospital for her birth.

Other social workers have testified Kematch seemed uninterested in being a parent and voluntarily gave up Phoenix days after she was born in April 2000.

Greeley, however, said Kematch and Sinclair soon appeared ready to turn their lives around. She was the couple's case worker between May and October of 2000 and helped draw up a plan that would let them regain custody of their infant.

The plan required Kematch to undergo a psychological assessment to see whether she was suffering from depression or some other problem. The couple was also required to attend parenting classes, visit Phoenix weekly and have an in-home support worker who would teach basic parenting skills.

Greeley said Thursday she had little memory of her dealings with the family. Kematch's story was not uncommon for social workers in Winnipeg's North End neighbourhood. But as she read from notes she took at the time, Greeley told the inquiry Kematch and Sinclair followed all the requirements.

"Both Samantha and Steven were motivated to parent Phoenix at that point."

Greeley's actions were questioned Thursday by Jeff Gindin, a lawyer who represents Sinclair and Kim Edwards, Phoenix's foster parent. Gindin asked Greeley why she didn't ask the psychiatrist who analysed Kematch for possible mental disorders to also provide a formal assessment about her parenting abilities.

"Can you think of why you might not? It seems, on the face of it, to be an obvious thing to do," Gindin asked.

Greeley said she couldn't remember the exact reason, but said such tests were normally only done when "children are in care for a long period of time".

Gindin also asked Greeley why she never took notes of the supervised weekly visits Kematch and Sinclair had with Phoenix while she was in foster care.

"You have no notes of how that interaction went?" Gindin asked.

"No," replied Greeley, who added she would only take notes if something unusual happened.

"If their behaviour during the visit was inappropriate in any sort of a way, if they attended the visit and they were under the influence of a substance, or if the parents themselves were not getting along during the visit. Those kinds of things."

Greeley left her job in October 2000 and prepared a case summary to be given to her replacement. She wrote that Kematch and Sinclair were doing well. She also wrote that a psychological assessment of Kematch had determined that she was not suffering from depression, but was something of a "closed book" in that she did not express her feelings.

The inquiry has yet to delve into why child-welfare workers removed Phoenix from a foster home and gave her back to Kematch in 2004 and what, if any, monitoring followed. Kematch and McKay's murder trial was told a social worker went to visit the family in 2005, was told Phoenix was sleeping and left without seeing her.