Phoenix Inquiry: Lies and the lying liar at the root of it all

(Samantha Kematch had the discretion to not murder her child.)

(Samantha Kematch)

“Don’t cry, I’m sorry to have deceived you so much, but that’s how life is.”  Nabokov

It could be that a key human resource problem Manitoba Child and Family Services faces is this: when you hire people professionally geared to see the best in others and what they might one day achieve, they might lack the capacity to see how horrific some of them could really be.

It’s the only reason jumping out to me as to just maybe why crisis response worker Christopher Zalevich elected to leave Phoenix Sinclair in the care of Samantha Kematch without even really trying to make an effort to see her in March 2005.

Zalevich makes an easy fall guy in Phoenix’s case, but to skewer him exclusively in light of all the systemic failings and questionable decisions we’ve seen so far is to kind of miss the point.

He had no formal child-welfare education or, for that matter, training. He has an ecology/family studies degree from the University of Manitoba. That was enough to get him in the CFS door and by 2002 he was working abuse unit cases, eventually winding up in crisis response where he remains to this day.

Zalevich’s only formal training in the much-discussed “provincial standards” came in 2007-08, years after he came to work at Winnipeg CFS in 2001.

Essentially, he says he learned on the job. Take that for what you will.

It’s easy to conclude Zalevich failed to put Phoenix’s welfare at the forefront.

He has to live with that, despite whatever justifications he had for believing Phoenix was safe when he recommended her mother’s file be closed.

[His whole dealing with Kematch raises the whole other issue, one that’s not overly complex but keeps cropping up: Who’s the client? The parent or the child? Hint: It’s supposed to be the child, but it’s not always seen that way.]

But despite putting Zalevich’s conduct and efforts on Phoenix’s file under a grim microscope today, there was a far more stark fact put briefly on the table that deserves more attention that it got.

It comes from a conclusion from a 2006 file review by Rhonda Warren.

Essentially, Warren found that over the years, since Phoenix was first given back to Kematch and then Steve Sinclair in August-September 2000, CFS workers actually saw her a total of four times.

And one of those was after she was apprehended into care from Sinclair in June 2003 and promptly given back to him by October despite the fact he had done nothing to prove he could care for her again.

The fact is, you can’t pin on Zalevich the real head-scratcher here: Kematch, in the eyes of the system, somehow magically transformed from horrible risk to children to fit and responsible parent in two years without her ever having to prove anything to CFS.

How this seemed to have happened was through a bizarre and downright confusing series of reports and case histories being watered down by each new crisis referral that came in, a lack of due diligence in delving deeper into said case histories, a chaotic system crushed by the weight of human need for help — and most importantly — CFS workers willing to simply accept what Kematch told them and not look any deeper. 

We see this over and over and over in this case.

Zalevich was just walking a path so many other of his colleagues did over the years: Following the trail of not seeing Samantha Kematch’s lies and failing seeing her hatred of the CFS system for what it was: a genuine risk factor.

Kematch learned by child number two, it seems, what telling the truth to CFS gets you — More CFS.

So her solution: Lie. and lie often. Then misdirect. Then give half-truths. There was one goal to it all:

Say whatever’s most convenient to get the agency out of your hair and away from your doorstep as fast as possible. 

It’s a combination of CFS gullibility and — it must be said — Kematch’s apparent skill as a crafty liar that helped put Phoenix on her horrific path.

Kematch loathed CFS.

It was so apparent. After all, she was a product of the system, having herself been a child in care. But the inquiry has heard that past CFS involvement didn’t really factor greatly into the moving target which is risk assessment.

Here’s a just a few examples of Kematch lying, misdirecting or hating on CFS and others:

  • She hid Phoenix’s pregnancy and that of Echo, born just a year after Phoenix. She also hid the pregnancy of her first child, a son taken from her at birth and ultimately made a permanent ward.

“Samantha sat the entire time in front of the TV – while this worker attempted to have a conversation with her — she would nodded or respond aggressively when asked a question.”

“Overall; it is evident to this worker that Samantha is annoyed and dislikes the involvement of WCFS – the family appears to doing well although Samantha does appear angry and annoyed with the agency involvement” — Feb 7 2001 file recording by Delores Chief Abigosis.

  • Lying in fall 2005 to a hospital social worker that Phoenix was alive and well despite the fact she had been long dead.

This lengthy little exchange in May-June 2004 (as summarized in 2006, again by Rhonda Warren) — this entire period was brought about by Kematch lying to a welfare worker about caring for Phoenix since before the prior Christmas and now seeking benefits for her.

The welfare worker, suspicious and concerned about conflicting reports on the risk Kematch may have been to Phoenix, called in a complaint to CFS worker Debbie De Gale. Here’s how that shook out:

Attempts were made to meet with Samantha prior to the date of actual contact and in fact the Intake Worker did make a home visit within the 48 hour Safety Assessment response time.

  • On May 13, 2004 workers attended Samantha’s residence. A man named Wes answered the door and said Samantha and Phoenix were at her Mother’s. 

  • On the same date a visit was made to the home of Samantha’s mother. Samantha was not there and said she and Phoenix were visiting friends. 

  • May 17, 2004 a letter was sent to Samantha saying the Intake Worker needed to meet with her. 

  • On June 2, 2004 the Intake Worker attended Samantha’s residence. Again there was no answer. 

  • On June 15, 2004 another letter was sent saying the Intake Worker needed to meet with Samantha. (Writer’s note: the letter said CFS couldn’t close its file on her until they met)

  • June 21, 2004 Samantha calls as she has received the letter. 

  • On June 28, 2004 Samantha calls to reschedule the next days meeting as she is moving. Samantha agreed to meet for a short while on the next day. 

  • June 29, 2004 Intake Worker attended Samantha’s address but could not gain entry to the block. 

  • July 9, 2004 Intake Worker gets Samantha’s new address from E&IA. 

  • July 13, 2004 Samantha makes contact with the Intake Worker who goes out to meet with her immediately. 

  • Samantha reports that she is doing fine with Phoenix. Workers see Phoenix who appears well cared for. Samantha also looks healthy and denies drug or alcohol use. There is no discussion of who Wes is or what his relationship is to Samantha. Samantha does state that her main support is her boyfriend who is a trucker and stays with her when he is in the city. 

  • Agency supports are offered to Samantha who declines. Community resource information is provided to her and the case is closed on Intake. 

  • During this interview with Samantha, she presented as stable and denied any substance abusing any substances. She did not exhibit any symptoms of drug abuse. Phoenix presented as healthy and well cared for. It was also noted that Samantha was involved in a relationship with Karl Wesley McKay who was employed as a truck driver….

  • WCFS assessed the risk to Phoenix as being low. Samantha declined services, but requested information community resources, which were provided by the Agency. The file was closed on July 15, 2004.

Another interesting clue from the mouth of her former common-law husband, Steve Sinclair in his Dec. 5 testimony:

Q: What was she like when you first got together with her?

A: She was quiet. She never talked about herself. Closed. I never asked …

Q: Now when you, when you met Samantha did you know that she had a baby?

A: Yes, I heard about that, yes …

Q: Did you know where the baby was?

A: Well. her — she didn’t really talk about it or her family never talked about it, so I guess I kind of figured her son might have been with CFS, so…

Q: You didn’t talk about it with her? …

Q: She didn’t talk to you about, about her background?

A: No.

The above is only really scratching the surface of Kematch’s spin.

Should Zalevich demanded to see Phoenix? Yes. Absolutely.

He ultimately admitted Phoenix’s welfare trumped Kematch’s privacy rights and her legislative right to the “least intrusive” dealings with CFS.

But the major thing separating his decisions made by so many others in the case is that Winnipeg CFS never got another chance to intervene.

-30-

Post note: I have been laying off the daily blogs of the inquiry due to 1] needing time to not think about it. 2] Recent days have been taxing.

But, more importantly, the inquiry is raising so many other issues and side questions that I’ve been working quietly on those as well in the background.

More to come.

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