WINNIPEG - Family friends say that months before Phoenix Sinclair's mother brutally killed her, she was forcing the girl to belittle herself and locking her in a bedroom.
"Sam was getting Phoenix to say things ... to mimic her. She'd be like, 'Say I'm a (expletive) bitch' and then Phoenix would say it," a friend of Samantha Kematch testified at a public inquiry Wednesday.
The woman cannot be identified under a publication ban that covers several people who called social workers with concerns about Phoenix.
At the time — near the end of 2004 — Phoenix was four years old. She had spent most of her life bouncing between foster care, her divorced parents and family friends.
The inquiry is examining how Manitoba child welfare failed to protect the girl. She had been removed from her parents' care, but was repeatedly returned to one or both of them. In June 2005, she was beaten to death by Kematch and her boyfriend, Karl McKay, after suffering horrific abuse.
The woman told the inquiry she noticed several problems with the way Kematch treated Phoenix. Kematch smoked crack, she said. She also had a lock on the outside of a bedroom door in her Winnipeg apartment, although it was not clear at the time that Phoenix was being locked inside.
A second witness — another friend whose identity is also covered by the publication ban — testified that she was in the apartment early in 2005 and saw Kematch lock the bedroom door. Kematch and the friend went to the corner store and when they returned, soft sounds could be heard from the locked bedroom.
"I heard some whimpering, it sounded like a sick child," the second woman told the inquiry.
"I was kind of surprised because (Kematch) didn't say that Phoenix was there."
Kematch undid the lock, went into the bedroom and came back a few seconds later, the friend said.
"I didn't hear any more moaning or anything."
In a hallway closet, the friend noticed a pair of child's boots that had not been used. They still had the sale tags on. She told the inquiry it was an odd sight, given that winter was well underway and a child would have had to use such boots to venture outdoors.
The first witness testified to other actions by Kematch. She gave away all of the Christmas presents Phoenix had received — after the child had opened them.
"She said that Phoenix was too bad and she didn't deserve them."
The first friend also had concerns about Kematch's boyfriend. Phoenix had started touching her genitals a lot and urinating while sleeping, and the friend took that as a sign that McKay might be sexually abusing the girl.
The friend testified she called Winnipeg Child and Family Services with her concerns in early 2005, but a social worker who answered the phone seemed reluctant to act.
"The intake worker asked me what my name was, and I told her ... I would like to remain anonymous. She said that unless I gave her my name, she couldn't take my complaint seriously."
The friend said she wanted to remain anonymous because she was afraid Kematch would be mad if she discovered who had complained.
The friend's testimony was challenged by Gordon McKinnon, the lawyer representing the provincial Child and Family Services Department. He pointed to a statement the friend gave to police in 2006, in which she said she had passed on the information that Phoenix was peeing the bed and was unusually quiet.
"What you reported was that the little girl can't use the bathroom properly, she barely talks to anyone and she's obedient," McKinnon said. "That's what you told Winnipeg CFS and nothing else."
The friend appeared confused by the question. After McKinnon and inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes clarified the question, she said: "I would agree." But she later insisted she also had mentioned possible abuse by both Kematch and McKay.
The inquiry has already heard that social workers repeatedly missed warning signs that Phoenix was in danger.
McKay had a long history of domestic violence, including beating a former girlfriend with the leg of a bathroom sink. But two social workers who dealt with the family in 2004 failed to dig up McKay's history, which was contained in the province's central database for Child and Family Services.
In early 2005, the family moved to a house on the Fisher River reserve north of the city. Kematch was tired of dealing with social workers and wanted to get away, the friend testified.
In June of that year, Kematch and McKay beat the five-year-old to death on the concrete floor of the home's basement. They buried her in a makeshift grave near a landfill and continued to pretend Phoenix was still alive.
The death went undetected for nine months. Kematch and McKay were later convicted of first-degree murder. Their trial was told the couple frequently beat and confined the girl, shot her with a BB gun and forced her to eat her own vomit.