01/10/2013 12:21 EST | Updated 03/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Inquiry into Manitoba girl's death told 'there was no affection' from mother

WINNIPEG - The inquiry into the death of a five-year-old girl has heard of more mistreatment by her mother in March 2005 — a time when Manitoba child welfare missed a last chance to intervene before the girl was violently killed.

A friend of Samantha Kematch testified Thursday that Kematch would lock Phoenix Sinclair in her bedroom, ignore her and even prevent others from helping the four-year-old girl while walking through the busy streets of central Winnipeg.

The friend, who cannot be identified under a publication ban, said she, Kematch, Phoenix and others were walking to another friend's home one day in March 2005 when she noticed that Kematch was paying no attention to Phoenix.

"There was no affection," the witness testified.

Phoenix had boots on but Kematch had not done up the buckles.

The group walked for about one kilometre and, at one point, the witness recalled trying to hold young Phoenix's hand.

"Sam was already down the alley ... and she was yelling back at us not to hold her hand and that she needs to learn to walk on her own," the witness said.

Phoenix had previously been a happy child but talked very little that day and kept to herself, the witness added.

The same witness testified earlier this week that Kematch had locked Phoenix in a bedroom on at least one occasion that year. The witness reported hearing whimpering and moaning from behind the locked door.

The inquiry is examining how Manitoba child welfare failed to protect Phoenix before she was beaten to death by Kematch and her boyfriend, Karl McKay, in June 2005. Phoenix had spent most of her life bouncing between foster care, family friends and her divorced parents. She had been taken from her parents repeatedly, but was returned to Kematch a final time in 2004.

The inquiry has already heard that social workers repeatedly missed warning signs that Phoenix was in danger.

The workers were sometimes unaware as to who was taking care of Phoenix. They also missed that McKay, the man Kematch started living with in 2004, had a long history of domestic violence that was outlined in the Child and Family Services central database. He had beaten former girlfriends, including one who was attacked with the leg from a bathroom sink.

The group walk that March happened just days after social workers paid a final visit to Kematch's apartment. They went to the door, were told by Kematch that Phoenix was sleeping and left without seeing her, according to statements that came out at Kematch and McKay's trial. Both were convicted of first-degree murder.

The file was closed. Phoenix was killed three months later.

The witness who testified Thursday was one of two friends who said they were so concerned about Phoenix in early 2005, that they wanted to alert Child and Family Services.

"I wanted CFS to check and make sure that Phoenix was OK and everything was OK in that household."

The witness's friend called anonymously, but was told her complaint could not be taken seriously unless she gave her name. The pair then went to another woman, a foster parent whose identity is also covered by the publication ban. She called child services and got the ball rolling.

The foster parent told the inquiry Thursday she had a hard time convincing the social worker who answered the phone to check on Phoenix.

"I didn't get very far before I was told, 'I'll have to stop you right there. I can't accept this information because it is third-hand,'" the foster parent testified.

"I told her that if anything happened to that child, I would hold her personally responsible."

Documents filed at the inquiry say social workers acted on the tip, but had to try hard to locate Kematch, who had recently moved and was collecting welfare.

"Placed a call to Employment and Income Assistance who do not have a listing of this family," reads a March 7, 2005, intake report prepared by two social workers.

"Placed another phone call to Employment and Income Assistance to find out family at this address and was informed it is Samantha which is an active file. Attended to the home at 2:30 p.m., waited for about five minutes, and could not get into the building."

The workers returned the next day, were greeted at the door by Kematch and left without seeing Phoenix.

Shortly after that, Kematch, McKay and Phoenix moved to the Fisher River reserve north of Winnipeg. There, the couple confined and abused Phoenix, sometimes shooting her with a BB gun and forcing her to eat her own vomit. She died at the age of five, after a deadly assault on the home's concrete basement floor.

Her death went undetected for nine months as Kematch and McKay continued to collect welfare benefits with Phoenix listed a living dependent. Kematch told nurses and social workers that Phoenix was alive and doing fine.

In March 2006, authorities were tipped off that Phoenix was in fact dead. McKay broke down under police questioning and led them to a shallow grave near the landfill on the reserve.