01/21/2013 12:16 EST | Updated 03/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Manitoba social worker insisted girl was fine, even after she had died: witness

WINNIPEG - The inquiry into the death of a Manitoba girl has been told at least one social worker insisted the girl was doing fine, even though the child had been beaten and killed two months earlier.

The testimony Monday from a relative of Phoenix Sinclair is the latest evidence that Manitoba's child welfare system failed the troubled child throughout her short life and even after her shattered body was buried in a makeshift grave near a landfill.

"I called basically every single agency Manitoba has to offer," the relative, who cannot be identified under a publication ban, told the inquiry.

"No one knew who she was or how to locate her."

The relative was worried Phoenix was being abused by her mother, Samantha Kematch. The girl was often dirty, had head lice, and was overly quiet and withdrawn when with Kematch, the inquiry was told.

By 2005, Kematch stopped bringing Phoenix to the relative's home, saying the girl was staying with other family members. In August of that year, the relative decided to try to get social workers to check on the girl.

The relative got nowhere in the first 20 or so phone calls, the inquiry was told, but ended up being directed to a social worker named Stan Williams at Winnipeg Child and Family Services. Williams had been the case worker for Phoenix and her family two years earlier.

"His last words to me were, 'she is doing fine and well,'" the relative testified.

"Those words ring in my head almost every day."

In fact, Phoenix, who was five, had been killed two months earlier by Kematch and Kematch's boyfriend, Karl McKay, after suffering horrific abuse and neglect. Her death would go undiscovered for another seven months as Kematch and McKay continued to collect welfare benefits with Phoenix listed as a dependent.

Stan Williams died in 2009. Monday's testimony marks the second time his work has been criticized at the inquiry.

The inquiry, which started last fall, 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 in April 2000 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 it was friends of the family or relatives for days or weeks at a time. They also missed that Karl McKay, the 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.

In 2003, Phoenix was seized from her father's home after a day-long drinking party where suspected gang members were present. Sinclair was told by a social worker named Laura Forrest to undergo alcohol counselling before he could get his daughter back. He didn't. He also said he didn't feel ready to parent again. Forrest left the agency, Williams took over the file and decided to give Phoenix back to her Dad anyway.

Two social workers had a final chance to save Phoenix in March 2005. Acting on an anonymous tip that Kematch was abusing Phoenix and locking her in a bedroom, they visited the family's Winnipeg apartment. Kematch said she had a visitor, kept the men in the hallway, and said she had simply yelled at the girl. The workers left without seeing Phoenix or inspecting the apartment, decided all was well and closed the file.

Three months later, Phoenix was dead.

Kematch and McKay were later convicted of first-degree murder 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. Phoenix died after a final assault on the concrete basement floor of the family's home on the Fisher River reserve, north of Winnipeg. The family had moved there weeks earlier.

The supervisor who signed off on the final decision to close Phoenix's file defended her actions Monday.

Diva Faria said workers were acting on a vague, anonymous tip and had not seen anything to indicate that Phoenix was in danger.

"Based on the information we have today, absolutely ... Phoenix should have been seen," Faria said.

"I'm suggesting even further, that based on what you had at that time, that would have been a wise decision also," Jeff Gindin, the lawyer for Phoenix's biological father, fired back.

Faria said she couldn't remember details of the case, but based on reports tabled at the inquiry, there was little evidence at the time that Phoenix was at risk.

"I had two social-work staff that were identifying that there were no protection concerns and based on their assessment and whatever other discussions we may have had, we concluded the case."