Inquiry into death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair resumes in Winnipeg
Published Wednesday, November 14, 2012 8:48AM CST
Last Updated Wednesday, November 14, 2012 6:48PM CST
The inquiry into the death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair resumed Wednesday morning at the Winnipeg Convention Centre, with testimony from social workers involved in the case.
The proceedings began with inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes outlining a revised timeline for the inquiry, adding the inquiry would likely be one of, if not the most, expensive inquiries in the history of the province.
Hughes said the inquiry, despite multiple delays thus far, was scheduled to sit for 90 days between November and May 31, 2013. Hughes also said he would need an extension on his report, which is now expected to be finished in September 2013.
Phoenix Sinclair was in and out of foster care throughout her life before being killed at age five on the Fisher River Cree Nation, north of Winnipeg, in 2005. Phoenix's mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl McKay, were found guilty in 2008 of first-degree murder.
Seven years have passed since Phoenix's death, and the inquiry has heard less than three days of testimony so far.
During a break in testimony, Commission Counsel Sherri Walsh said, "I'm hopeful that every possible reason for delay has been addressed."
Walsh reiterated, "It's absolutely about Phoenix." She added, "We're looking at the circumstances surrounding her life."
Wednesday morning, the inquiry heard from Manitoba child welfare worker Andrew Orobko, who worked with a child and family services unit on Phoenix's case shortly after her birth.
A seven-point plan was drafted for Phoenix and Kematch and her birth father Steve Sinclair that included plans for weekly visitation between Kematch and Phoenix to encourage bonding and a psychological assessment for Kematch.
In addition, the plan called for Phoenix’s parents to take a parenting class. The agency also applied for a three-month order of guardianship for Phoenix.
Kris Saxberg, counsel for a number of CFS agencies in the province, asked Orobko if he thought it was likely the plan would be completed in just three months.
Orobko admitted the three-month timeframe was ambitious, but was important so that the parents did not lose hope that they would see the child returned to them and so that there was a sense of urgency that the plan be completed.
"The list of issues working against this couple is a huge list," said Orobko, citing the couple's age and Kematch's apparent mental health issues.
The inquiry also heard that Orobko was primarily concerned with Kematch as a parent, rather than Sinclair. Sinclair, he said, seemed reserved and articulate. He was cautious and concerned, according to Orobko, because of his own previous experience being in CFS care as a child.
Orobko said he didn't want to understate the tragic nature of what happened to Phoenix but said, "The case was unremarkable in the sense that that was what we do." He later added, "It was very typical of the work we did on a daily basis."
In September, Orobko testified the six workers in his unit were overworked. As an example, Orobko said in 2003 his unit took in about 1,100 new cases. Orobko said it greatly exceeded recommendations from the Child Welfare League of America's Standards, which say CFS workers should only work on four or five cases a week.
Counsel for Manitoba's Department of Family Services and Consumer Affairs, Gordon McKinnon, challenged Orobko's original testimony that his team of child welfare workers were receiving six to eight new cases per week.
McKinnon asked him if he was overstating how big his team's caseload actually was.
Orobko said he was not. He later reiterated testimony saying that his team was understaffed, overworked and dealing with a difficult community.
Despite heavy workloads though, Orobko testified that his unit's handling of Phoenix's intake into the child welfare system in the province was exemplary.
Orobko said he was "blessed with a staff that were well-trained, seasonal and mature." Further, he said, despite working in a difficult community with overworked staff, he said he was "not aware of us having ever left a child in any unacceptable situation ... or where a child was left in harm's way."
When Orobko's testimony completed, McKinnon clarified to reporters, "We're not challenging that workers were busy," but instead, he said, it is important to be accurate when dealing with facts and figures.
Wednesday afternoon, the inquiry heard from child welfare worker Kerri-Lynn Greeley, who worked on Phoenix's file for a short time in 2000. Testimony revealed Phoenix spent the first six months of her life as a ward of Cree Nation CFS, before a foster home was found for her in September 2000.
Shortly after that, Greeley transferred the child's file to another CFS worker.
At main issue Wednesday afternoon was Greeley's note-taking abilities and the thoroughness of the file that had been kept on Phoenix and her biological parents, Kematch and Sinclair.
The inquiry is continuing in Winnipeg.