01/08/2013 05:17 EST | Updated 03/10/2013 05:12 EDT

Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry: Social Worker Says Closing File On Girl Who Was Later Killed 'An Error'


WINNIPEG - Manitoba's child welfare system closed the file on young Phoenix Sinclair without realizing she was being cared for by a man with a long history of domestic violence — a man who would later take part in beating her to death.

The testimony Tuesday at the provincial inquiry into the five-year-old`s death marks the second time the probe has heard that Karl Wesley McKay slipped under the radar of social workers months before he helped neglect, abuse and finally kill Phoenix in June 2005.

"In hindsight, knowing the information that I do now that's available regarding Mr. McKay, yes, it was an error that the file was closed," social worker Shelley Willox testified under cross-examination.

"But based on the information that I had, and the concerns or lack thereof that were being reported to me at the time, do I agree ... that it was catastrophic that the file was closed at the time? No."

The inquiry is examining how Phoenix slipped through the cracks of a troubled child-welfare system. It has already heard that the girl spent most of her life bouncing between her divorced parents, family friends and foster care.

In December 2004, Phoenix's mother, Samantha Kematch, gave birth for a fourth time, prompting renewed concern for social workers. Kematch's first child had been made a permanent ward of the state, another had died of an infection and Phoenix had been in and out of care.

Because of that history, a hospital social worker called Winnipeg Child and Family Services when the fourth child was born. Willox was assigned to the file.

She tried to get information on the new baby's father, who was referred to as Wes McKay and who was living with Kematch. A public health nurse and the provincial welfare agency were contacted. The family was on social assistance.

The public health nurse cited privacy laws in refusing to discuss the family. The welfare agency did not have McKay listed as living in the home.

Willox admitted she could have combed through the province's central database for a Wes McKay, but said there were a few people listed with that name or variations thereof.

That prompted a rebuke from Sherri Walsh, the lawyer leading the inquiry, who said there were only two Wes McKays in the database who were roughly the same age as Kematch.

"You know ... that you could have clicked on those two names in a matter of minutes, right?" Walsh said.

"Yes," Willox answered.

One of the two McKays listed in the database was indeed the man living with Phoenix and her mother. His file outlined violence that dated back more than a decade.

One social worker in 1999 had written that McKay had repeatedly beaten and bruised his former partner. A report from another social worker said he had once taken the supporting leg off a bathroom sink and beaten his former partner with it. Another, earlier report said McKay had broken a former girlfriend's nose.

Willox never saw that information. Within a few days, and guided by another social worker's report that said Kematch was deemed a low risk to harm her daughter, Willox and her supervisor agreed to close the books on Phoenix.

The following June, Kematch and McKay beat Phoenix to death in the basement of their home. The trial that saw the couple convicted of first-degree murder heard the youngster had been hit, shot with a BB gun and forced to eat her own vomit.

An external review of Phoenix's death, conducted in 2006 but only made public piece by piece as the inquiry has unfolded, levelled harsh criticism at Willox's move to close the file.

"With the closing, the agency lost its ability to intercede in what was undoubtedly a slide towards a catastrophe," the review reads.

"In light of the mother's history it should have raised alarm bells that she may have a partner who has issues himself."

The inquiry has already heard about another social worker who did not investigate McKay.

In April 2004, Kematch took Phoenix from friends who had been caring for the girl. A social worker went to Kematch's home to check on the girl. A man who identified himself as "Wes" answered the door and said Kematch and Phoenix had gone out.

The social worker didn't ask the man for his last name and didn't probe any further. The girl's file was closed and remained so until Kematch gave birth to her fourth child that December.

Even after Phoenix's death in June 2005, social workers remained in the dark. Kematch and McKay collected welfare benefits with the girl listed as a living dependent. In the fall of 2005, when Kematch was again pregnant and Phoenix had been dead for four months, another social worker wrote in a report that Phoenix was "A+W'' — alive and well.

It was only in the spring of 2006 that authorities learned Phoenix was dead. McKay broke down under questioning and led officers to a makeshift grave near a dump on the Fisher River reserve where the couple had buried the girl.