12/05/2012 11:53 EST | Updated 02/04/2013 05:12 EST

Father of murdered Manitoba girl says he liked to party, but cared for girl

WINNIPEG - Steve Sinclair had an alcohol problem, was on welfare, and would regularly leave his young daughter Phoenix with relatives or family friend Kim Edwards while he partied.

But he loved the girl and was always interested in parenting her, he testified Wednesday at an inquiry into his daughter's death.

"Yes, I still partied every once in a while," Sinclair told the inquiry.

"Where was Phoenix?" asked Sherri Walsh, the lawyer leading the inquiry.

"She would either be at Kim's or my sister Sheila's. Somewhere safe, of course."

Sinclair's partying would cost him guardianship of his daughter. The inquiry has already heard that one of the many times Phoenix was apprehended by social workers in her short life was in June 2003. Sinclair was holding a day-long party with drugs and alcohol that included suspected gang members. Phoenix, who was three at the time, was in the home.

The inquiry is examining how the Manitoba's child welfare system failed Phoenix. She spent much of her life bouncing between her parents and foster care before being handed back to her mother, Samantha Kematch, in 2004. Months later, she was beaten to death by Kematch and her boyfriend Karl McKay after suffering horrific abuse that included being shot with a BB gun.

Social workers had closed her file. Her death went undetected for nine months.

Phoenix had first been seized by social workers days after her birth in April 2000, and evidence at the inquiry has shown a series of failings by the child-welfare system.

Sinclair and Kematch were emotionally and financially unprepared for the baby. They hadn't even bought clothes or a crib as they went to the hospital when Phoenix was born.

The young couple had both been in permanent foster care, had violent pasts and had displayed severe emotional problems. An assessment on Sinclair, written when he turned 18 and two years before Phoenix's birth, described him as "a highly disturbed individual who should not be left in charge of dependent children."

Despite the problems, social workers in 2000 decided to work to reunite Phoenix with her parents. Sinclair told the inquiry Wednesday he was willing and able to care for his daughter.

"It didn't seem like (Kematch) was, but I was always interested."

By September 2000, Sinclair and Kematch regained custody of Phoenix, but they would regularly leave her with friends or family to party. Eventually, Phoenix would spend longer periods of time with Edwards.

Sinclair and Kematch separated in 2001 after another baby, Echo, died of a respiratory infection. Sinclair had care of Phoenix but would give her to Edwards for days or weeks at a time to cope with his grief or simply take a break from his responsibilities.

"Echo's death had a great impact on me, so I always relied on (Edwards). She was always there for me."

In June 2003, Phoenix was brought to hospital by a family friend with an infection in her nose. A foreign object — Kematch's murder trial was told it was a piece of Styrofoam — had been lodged in her nose for three months and had not been treated.

Sinclair said Wednesday he had earlier tried to get treatment at a clinic.

"I took her to a walk-in, and they just said, `it's just something, it'll come out on its own'."

In 2004, Kematch regained custody of Phoenix. In April of that year, Sinclair saw his daughter for the last time. He moved to Ontario and never visited or talked to either Phoenix or Kematch after that, but got updates from a relative who kept in touch with Kematch.

"She was with her mother, you know. Her mother should know better than to hurt her."

The inquiry has already heard from a long list of social workers about huge gaps that left Phoenix unmonitored for months at a time, and parenting plans ignored.

In September 2000 — the first time Phoenix was returned to her parents — Sinclair and Kematch were supposed to have weekly visits with a social worker and receive in-home support. That didn't happen.

In early 2003, following Phoenix's nose infection, a social worker was supposed to inspect the girl's living conditions but never managed to find Sinclair at home.

In the summer of 2003, after Phoenix was taken out of a party at Sinclair's home, Sinclair was supposed to get alcohol counselling before getting Phoenix back. That didn't happen, but he regained custody within a few months.

As stated by an internal review of the case, conducted in 2006 by the Winnipeg Child and Family Services agency but only made public now: "From October of 2000 to the last contact with this family, actual service was almost non-existent."

The inquiry is expected to continue through May. It will soon delve into why Phoenix was taken out of a foster home in 2004 and handed back to the mother who, along with a boyfriend, would kill her.