07/26/2013 06:17 EDT | Updated 09/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Winnipeg family services agency admits it failed girl who died

WINNIPEG - Winnipeg Child and Family Services says it takes the blame for its social workers and supervisors "asking the wrong questions" about a child who bounced in and out of foster care before she was killed.

"Winnipeg CFS accepts responsibility," lawyer Gord McKinnon told an inquiry into Phoenix Sinclair's death.

McKinnon is the lawyer for the provincial Family Services Department, which is in charge of the child-welfare agency that handled the girl's file from when she was born in 2000 until it closed the case months before her murder in 2005.

"I think the perception still persists, somehow, that an aboriginal agency was at fault," McKinnon said during final submissions at the inquiry Thursday.

Phoenix's remains were discovered at the dump on the Fisher River reserve in March 2006 — nine months after her mother and the woman's boyfriend abused her so badly she died.

McKinnon said some people assumed an aboriginal agency was involved when child welfare agencies didn't comment after the five-year-old's death was uncovered. But that was because of confidentiality legislation, he said.

"When this story broke in the media many years ago, all of us were operating on the same restriction and couldn't comment," McKinnon said. "It's important that this false impression be laid to rest."

The Winnipeg agency alone handled her case and several reviews looked at what systemic problems may have led to her death. Heavy workload, a lack of training and supervision, poor note-taking and an outdated computer system were all noted.

"To just add more money and permit the same failures is no solution at all," said McKinnon.

"More workers doing the same thing the same way doesn't improve outcomes," he said. "Training had to be significantly improved."

Phoenix's case was closed when it shouldn't have been and not opened when it should have been because social workers and supervisors weren't asking the right questions, McKinnon said.

It was closed one last time after a worker checking on allegations that Phoenix was being abused didn't actually see the child or gather any information.

The union representing social workers said Phoenix's case happened at a time when child welfare was funded at less than half of what it's now. As well, talk of devolution to other agencies had workers feeling insecure. But that's not why wrong decisions were made on her file, McKinnon said.

"We say that the failure ... is fundamentally a failure to appropriately assess safety and risk," he said.

"We now ask if the child is safe."

(Winnipeg Free Press)