07/23/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 09/21/2013 05:12 EDT

Inquiry told Manitoba child welfare improved since girl's death in 2005

WINNIPEG - One of Manitoba's largest child-welfare authorities says changes in the eight years since the torturous abuse and murder of a five-year-old girl have made the province's protection system one of the best in Canada.

In its written closing submissions to an inquiry looking into the 2005 death of Phoenix Sinclair, the General Child and Family Services Authority says there were six extensive reviews and countless recommendations made after the little girl was killed by her mother and the woman's boyfriend.

The authority says there are fewer children coming into care now and it is far less likely for such a tragedy to occur again.

"The general authority submits that the changes implemented since Phoenix Sinclair and her family received services have improved the child-welfare system," states the authority's written submission to Commissioner Ted Hughes.

"Not only have the recommendations from the reviews been implemented in a manner which emphasizes the best interests of Manitoba children under the jurisdiction of the general authority, but the state of the child-welfare system within the general authority system is one of the best in the country as a result of the comprehensive changes."

Hughes is examining how Phoenix, who bounced in and out of foster care, ultimately slipped through the cracks and how her murder could have gone undiscovered for months.

Phoenix died after repeated and horrific abuse by her mother Samantha Kematch and step-father Karl McKay that broke nearly every bone in her body. Both were convicted of first-degree murder in 2008.

Phoenix was taken from her mother at birth and again three years later, but was returned each time. When McKay became involved with Kematch, it's alleged social workers didn't do a simple background check, which would have revealed his violent history.

The last time Child and Family Services workers investigated an allegation of abuse, they left without entering the apartment or seeing Phoenix. The file was closed and several months later, Phoenix was dead.

The lack of a background check wouldn't happen now, say lawyers for the provincial Department of Family Services.

"Today, once it is known that a new caregiver has entered the scene, then it would trigger a safety assessment on this new person," the province says in its submission to Hughes.

Provincial funding for child welfare has tripled between 2002 and 2012 — to $423 million from $165 million — the province says. Federal funding has also jumped to $124 million from $50 million. The number of frontline workers has increased by 30 per cent, while the number of cases has increased eight per cent.

Changes have also been made to ensure children are not returned to their families prematurely. Under today's rules, the province says, Phoenix's case would have been handled very differently.

"Before Phoenix was reunited with her family, there would have been a need for the family to demonstrate behavioural change and acts of protection over time," the province says.

"There would need to be a formal reassessment to confirm the parents were ready to assume care of Phoenix and there would have been a followup assessment 45 days after reunification. It is likely that the case would have been identified as high-risk and remained open to family services for a longer period of time."

However, children in care have continued to die.

Two-year-old Gage Guimond was given to his great-aunt, Shirley Guimond, in 2007 even though she had a criminal record. The boy was beaten frequently and died after falling down stairs.

The following year, 13-month-old Cameron Ouskan died of injuries after being placed in the foster care of Roderick Blacksmith, who faces a charge of second-degree murder. In 2009, 21-month-old Jaylene Redhead was smothered by her mother, Nicole, at a treatment centre while under child-welfare supervision.

The province's children's advocate, Bonnie Kocsis, said in 2010 that child welfare was "in a state of chaos" because of a growing number of children in care, high staff turnover and mistrust among foster parents.

Jeff Gindin, lawyer for Phoenix's father Steve Sinclair and her foster mother Kim Edwards, said "the jury is still out" on whether all the changes have made a difference.

"It always comes down to the social workers, how they do it, their culture, their attitude and their judgment," Gindin said. "You can have the best tools in the world, you still have to use them the right way."

Final oral submissions to the inquiry are scheduled to wrap up next week and a report is expected by December.