Phoenix Inquiry: The curious case of the slimmed-down summary

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(Phoenix Sinclair)

Another illuminating moment today at the inquiry into how Phoenix Sinclair fell through the cracks of our provincial child-protection system.

It had to do with the information social workers rely on when assessing the urgency — some may describe that as ‘risk’ — when responding to a case; specifically, how soon Phoenix needed the system’s attention.

I’ve written before about social worker Laura Forrest being lauded in at least one internal review after Phoenix’s death (as well as by CFS employees on the witness stand) regarding her June 2003 case summary, which finally put together all available information about the case and the concerning backgrounds of her parents.

Forrest saw that, all things considered, her case was high risk and that CFS couldn’t go away from her life.

Her risk assessment would ultimately be deemed an “opinion” by subsequent workers and tossed aside to allow Steve Sinclair a fresh start with CFS and a new worker after Phoenix was taken from him in June 2003.

By the time Sinclair regained custody of her on Oct. 2, 2003, colleague and case worker Stan Williams’s closing summary of the case looked starkly different than Forrest’s.

I won’t reprint Forrest’s in its entirety, it’s pages long and extremely deep (it can be found here) Below, however, is the final, but still lengthy section in her ‘Statement of Risk.’

“Steven and Samantha have clearly indicated their mistrust and unwillingness to be involved with a child welfare agency however they have not demonstrated a capacity and commitment to ensure their child’s wellbeing enough for the agency not to be involved. Unfortunately. because of their past involvement as wards of a child welfare agency they arc not receptive to services from the agency and they deny or minimize any Issues presented in an effort to keep the agency away from them. They would do anything, or nothing, to keep the agency at bay. It is this worker’s opinion that it is this attitude and disregard for the agency that has probably resulted in this agency’s previous termination of services, and not a lack of child welfare issues, If one looks back in previous recording the identified and unresolved problems are still very much present in the family’s current situation. The problems haven’t gone away, and now neither can the agency. The obvious struggle in commitment, questionable parenting capacity, along with an unstable home environment and substance abuse lssue(s), and lack of positive support system all lend to a situation that poses a high level of risk to this child, for maltreatment and / or placement in agency care. Phoenix Is in agency care no(w) and it would probably not be in her best interests to be returned to either parent at this time or until they can show something to indicate that they can and will be more responsible and protective other.”

Now, for the sake of contrast, here’s Stan Williams’s final word on the case, under the “Unresolved Problems‘ section. It was authored around the time Phoenix was allowed by CFS to go back to dad unconditionally without having taken any programming for his alcohol problem.

“Mr. Sinclair requested his child stay in care until he felt strong enough to care for her again. He has had his time out and will parent Phoenix starting Oct. 2, 2003. He has done no programming and as such is prone to an unhealthy way of managing stresses in his life. He is aware of the need to arrange for appropriate alternative caregivers when he feels the need for a break or time out for respite.”

It goes without saying there’s a massive difference between the tone, content and, I submit — the intent of the two statements, prepared mere months apart by different social workers with apparently different mindsets.

But the net effect of this apparent discretionary revisionism was revealed today in relation to how another social worker, Lisa Conlin (and, her supervisor) started off their investigation into subsequent allegations Phoenix could be at risk in January 2004.

Conlin says she didn’t or can’t remember looking at past Kematch or Sinclair files the agency had on record when the file came to her on Jan. 20, 2004.

Did you look up either of the parents’ information on CFSIS (the internal computer system)?, commission counsel Sherri Walsh asked.

“Well, I believe I for sure would have looked at his (inaudible) that was open to me,” she said.

At Steve Sinclair’s?

“Steve Sinclair’s. That would be my typical practice,” she said.

And what would you have looked at? What information would you have looked at?

“The last closing summary,” Conlin replied.

So in this case, that’s the one at November 2003 (The Williams closing summary, referenced above.)? What about the one immediately before that — still in Mr. Sinclair’s file, from March 2002 — would you have looked at that one as well?

“I don’t specifically recall that one.”

You don’t recall looking at that one?

“No.”

Was it your practice, typically, just to look at the most recent file closing?

“Typically, because, what happens is the latest worker would have summarized already the previous closing summary — so you get a recent summary in the most recent closing. Just like when the intake initially comes to me from the Crisis Response Unit, there’s a summary … in there.” (To be fair, there was also a short ‘cut and pasted’ recounting of the family’s history and CFS involvement in that summary).

So if we look at the summary you would have reviewed … (Nov. 13, 2003, the Williams summary) under the heading ‘unresolved problems’ (Walsh reads the section, listed above, aloud to her)

“I don’t recall exactly when I looked at this,” she says. “It’s just something (as a matter of practice) I would have done,” said Conlin.

———

As you can clearly see, there’s a huge discrepancy in content and tone between the Forrest and Williams case summaries.

One (Forrest’s) darkly and deeply warns of the risk Phoenix was in and — by my reading — essentially urges the agency to stay involved in the little girl’s life.

The other, Williams’ laconic five-sentence-long summary essentially — to me — suggests almost the polar opposite – that the agency take a hands-off approach for the young dad who just needed a time out from parenting. (as if that wasn’t a warning sign in itself).

Problem is, when problems crept up again a few months later, Conlin, a busy social worker handling short-term child-protection intervention calls in the city’s most challenged area — likely only had so much time to delve into the file. Who knows. Maybe she just didn’t see the need to look further given the presenting child-welfare issues in the case she was to look into.

But it’s clear to me, at least, that it’s certainly more likely a social worker’s guard would have been raised significantly more if Forrest’s case summary had remained the one at the top of the pile.

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