01/16/2013 11:55 EST | Updated 03/18/2013 05:12 EDT

Social worker who decided girl was safe without seeing her followed guidelines

WINNIPEG - The inquiry into the beating death of a Manitoba girl has been told it was not uncommon for Manitoba social workers to decide a child was safe without even laying eyes on the youngster.

Workers would speak to other family members in the home or sometimes simply assess the situation over the phone — methods that were allowed under provincial child-welfare standards that were only changed recently.

"I would suggest that I complied with that standard," Christopher Zalevich said Wednesday at the public inquiry into the 2005 death of Phoenix Sinclair.

On March 9, 2005, Zalevich, a crisis response worker with Winnipeg Child and Family Services went to the apartment building where Samantha Kematch and her four-year-old daughter, Phoenix Sinclair, were living.

Zalevich, along with coworker Bill Leskiw were investigating an anonymous tip that Kematch was abusing Phoenix and locking her in a bedroom. Kematch had a long history of troubles that were outlined in the child-welfare database. Phoenix had spent much of her life in foster care and in the care of family friends.

Zalevich and Leskiw talked to Kematch in the hallway of her apartment building. She told them she didn't want them inside because she had a visitor. The social workers saw Kematch hold her youngest daughter, a baby who appeared well-cared-for and were told Phoenix was elsewhere. They told Kematch she shouldn't lock Phoenix in a bedroom because it would make it hard for the girl to get out if there were a fire.

With that, the pair left. Zalevich suggested the file be closed and his supervisor approved it. Three months later, Phoenix was beaten to death by Kematch and her boyfriend, Karl McKay — a man with a long history of domestic violence that was also detailed in the child-welfare database.

The inquiry was told that provincial standards in 2005 did not require social workers, in most instances, to physically see a child before closing a case.

"There wasn't a strict requirement to see all of the children before closing the file, correct?" asked Kris Saxberg, a lawyer representing Zalevich's supervisors and the province's regional child welfare authorities.

"Yes," Zalevich replied.

Leskiw testified that even the report of a locked bedroom door would not necessarily prompt a further investigation.

"It may require seeing the door, depending on the responses received," he said.

"If an individual presents that they weren't aware that that is inappropriate and will no longer use that form of corrective behaviour for their child, then it may be accepted at that point."

Workers at the Winnipeg agency were even doing some of their assessments over the phone. A document tabled at the inquiry shows there was a staff meeting at which Zalevich and his colleagues were told to try to limit phone assessments.

"As much as is possible, when there is a concern about a child in the home, the home and the child should be seen by a worker," says the minutes of a February 2004 staff meeting.

"If the decision is made to complete an assessment via telephone ... this should be reviewed and approved by the supervisor."

The inquiry was told Wednesday that seeing a child was sometimes problematic because of high caseloads or a lack of specific information about the alleged abuse.

"If there's been a specific allegation or a report made that a child has been abused, that child would likely need to be seen ... I would say should be seen," Leskiw said.

"Sometimes that word (abuse) gets used fairly generally. In my experience ... there have been times when somebody has said a child is being abused and when questioned with respect to what they're referring to, then their description would not necessarily fall under an abuse category."

"But you would do some investigation before deciding not to see a child?," asked Derek Olson, one of the lawyers leading the inquiry.

"Ideally," Leskiw answered.

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

She was taken from Kematch and Steve Sinclair, her biological father, days after her birth because both parents had violent histories and were unprepared to care for her. Months later, Phoenix was given back to the couple.

Social workers were sometimes unaware of who was taking care of Phoenix — usually friends of the family or relatives for days or weeks at a time. They also missed that Karl McKay, a boyfriend Kematch started living with in 2004, had a long history of domestic violence that including beating one former girlfriend with the leg of a bathroom sink.

Kematch and McKay were later convicted of first-degree murder in Phoenix's death and are serving life sentences. Their trial was told they frequently confined and abused the girl, sometimes shooting her with a BB gun and forcing her to eat her own vomit.