12/06/2012 12:04 EST | Updated 02/05/2013 05:12 EST

'I was a liar and they were incompetent:' family friend at dead girl's inquiry

WINNIPEG - A family friend who cared for a little girl for much of her short life has admitted he lied to social workers and he believes that his lies may have contributed to her death.

"I give you that I lied to them, there's no question about that, but ... they made no effort to follow up," Rohan Stephenson told the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry Thursday.

"I was a liar and they were incompetent, and 15,000 other circumstances all came together, and now Phoenix is dead."

The inquiry is examining how child welfare failed Phoenix, who bounced between foster care and her family before she was beaten to death at the age of five by her mother and her mother's boyfriend. The girl had suffered horrific physical abuse and neglect. Her death went undetected for nine months.

Stephenson and his former wife, Kim Edwards, took care of Phoenix off and on starting mere weeks after she was born in April 2000. Her parents, Steve Sinclair and Samantha Kematch, had troubled, violent pasts and had drug and alcohol problems.

Sinclair and Kematch would go out partying and leave their infant with Stephenson and Edwards, whom they had met the previous year. At first, it was just overnight once in a while, Stephenson testified. But Phoenix's stays eventually grew to days and weeks at a time.

By 2001, Kematch and Sinclair lost another child to a respiratory infection and separated. Kematch was out of the picture and Sinclair would go on lengthy binges.

Social workers were content in the ensuing years to leave young Phoenix with Stephenson and Edwards — sometimes through formal agreements and sometimes on an informal basis when Sinclair had official care of Phoenix.

But the workers had virtually no knowledge of what was going on in the lives of Phoenix's backstop caregivers, the inquiry was told.

Stephenson testified that he and Edwards had separated, and she had moved out. Stephenson started working overnights, leaving his sons, 13 and 11, to care for baby Phoenix until morning.

Stephenson said he knew Winnipeg Child and Family Services would not like the situation, so he never told them about it.

He also admitted to routinely ignoring rules set by the agency. In 2003, after Phoenix was apprehended from a day-long house party at her biological father's home, she was formally given into Stephenson's care. He signed an agreement to not let Sinclair retrieve Phoenix, even temporarily.

"That made no difference. If Steve came and said, 'Oh, hey, could I take Phoenix?' then he could take her," Stephenson said.

"All this stuff assumes that we respected the system and the rules, and we didn't."

Stephenson, who was frequently combative under cross-examination, said he mistrusted authority because of his background as a "marginalized, low-income" person. He laid much of the blame on social workers who he said rarely, if ever, visited his home and never monitored his actions.

By 2004, Kematch was back in the picture and was trying to get custody of her daughter. She showed up at Stephenson's door and asked to have the girl for a couple of days.

Despite his misgivings about her parenting skills — and contrary to a letter from CFS workers who were concerned about Kematch —Stephenson let Phoenix go and did not tell the agency.

"I assumed that Sam ... would take her and then bring her back."

A few days later, Sinclair called the agency and efforts were made to find Kematch.

What remains unclear is how Phoenix ended up in her mother's care permanently in the following months. The inquiry has yet to delve into that period, which according to documents filed at the hearing includes a final intervention in March 2005 — three months before Phoenix was killed.

The inquiry has already heard from a long list of social workers about Phoenix being left unmonitored for months at a time and how parenting plans were ignored.

In September 2000, 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 a nose infection that required Phoenix to be treated in hospital, 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, Sinclair was supposed to get alcohol counselling before getting Phoenix back. He didn't, but still regained custody within a few months.

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

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Rohan Stephenson signed an agreement agreeing not to give Phoenix back to Samantha Kematch, but he did not