Phoenix Inquiry: Where did today take us?

(Phoenix Sinclair)

(Phoenix Sinclair)

The stage was set. The media turned up in droves.

And for once, today there appeared to be more than a single public observer taking in what’s likely to become the most expensive (and I’d contend, expansive) public examination of a huge and hush-hush government department in Manitoba history.

Despite the anticipation, Steve Sinclair’s testimony at the inquiry into the role Child and Family Services played in his daughter’s short life didn’t inch us any closer to discovering anything truly on point.

Let me be clear: As previously stated, I have lot of respect for Mr. Sinclair. I feel horribly for him and his loss(es).

The grief he must deal with I can’t pretend to imagine. And I would never, ever, begrudge him a venue to say what’s on his mind as it relates to Phoenix. Ever.

“I appreciate the chance to speak,” he told Commissioner Hughes after being dismissed from the witness stand.

I have no doubt he did. And, for the record, I’m glad he did.

But I’m wracking my brain to figure how what Sinclair told us fits into the picture the first phase of this inquiry is supposed to be painting.

That is: to help us unravel the actions and inactions of CFS as they related to Phoenix before she wound up back in her mother’s care, and somehow wound up lonely, abused and murdered on a tiny  Manitoba reserve.

It was interesting to note Sinclair’s observations about Samantha Kematch, how she didn’t want to talk about her first-born son and he didn’t want to pry. It was heartbreaking to hear his recollections of Phoenix as he visited with her in a CFS office as a baby and what she was like in his home at age three. It was concerning to see the effect his second daughter’s death clearly had on him.

I did find it extremely important Sinclair discussed what happened and his apparent confusion when he agreed to let Kematch take Phoenix for a few hours only to never see her again, and to also get a little more clarification on how Phoenix wound up at HSC with a foreign object in her nose in early 2003.

And it was also interesting to hear from Sinclair’s own lips the underpinnings of why CFS concluded  he was a “passive resistant” client.

But again, such things appeared to me to be ‘story’ when it’s ‘process’ we’re jousting with: the ‘story’ of a gigantic government child-protection system and how it operates.

Sinclair’s first-person version of events and clarifications of circumstances weren’t written up in any CFS report we’ve seen yet — a report to be used as information by which agency decisions were made during his daughter’s lifetime.

We should be focusing here on the systemic problems with Manitoba child-welfare and ‘process’ as they related to Phoenix’s case at the time, looking at the internal decisions CFS agents made based on the information CFS gathered.

As far as I can see today, Sinclair’s testimony — at this stage of the inquiry — didn’t help us answer or put into any much greater context the serious questions which have surfaced.

A scant few of those questions, simply rattled off from the top of my head, might include:

  • Why did Winnipeg CFS allow Kematch and Sinclair to have Phoenix back prior to her completing a psychological assessment/evaluation deemed vital at the time Phoenix was born?
  • Is it enough for a social worker and her supervisor to say because a child — one who had once been in CFS care — has been seen quickly by an ER doctor, that that constitutes in any way a safety assessment as to what risk she may be in?
  • Why was Sinclair allowed by CFS to unconditionally reclaim Phoenix seven weeks before her court-sanctioned period in custody (it was the shortest order the law allowed) ended? Allowed to take her back despite he took no programming to deal with the drinking issue that was deemed so risky for Phoenix she needed to be brought into care?
  • When, in early 2004, it appeared Sinclair (described by CFS as her ‘primary caregiver’) was totally AWOL and Kematch was mysteriously caring for Phoenix at times, was the little girl allowed to live at her godparents without any long-term state-sanctioned plan for her care and well-being? And no legal guardianship order being in effect?
  • Why was one worker’s comprehensive risk assessment of the family’s case simply tossed out by another worker to start “fresh?”
  • Where are all the supervisory notes?

What we’re trying to answer here, I thought, was, how did the provincial child-welfare system — not her dad — fail Phoenix?

I don’t recall Sinclair being asked many questions about what he’d have liked to see CFS do in his case, what solutions he might have as a person involved in a system he likely loathes. In fact, I can’t say I heard many tough questions asked of him at all.

His evidence may have been more helpful in the inquiry’s upcoming third phase, which will look broadly at societal conditions such as poverty; how they may have factored into Phoenix’s death.

Maybe I’m just not seeing it — but I don’t see how Sinclair’s evidence put us any closer to what we’re trying to get at today.

If you can help me out, fire away in the comment section.

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