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

A watershed moment came today in the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry. One I’d been quietly waiting for since testimony really got underway a couple of weeks ago.

A Child and Family Services social worker uttered the single word that — to me, anyways — appears to underscore exactly how Phoenix wound up in the hideous predicament she did.


Its common definition is simple: “The freedom to decide what should be done in a situation.”

I’m beginning to see that discretion, at least as it relates to the evidence we’ve heard so far, figures in several ways in Phoenix’s tragedy on levels both systemic and personal.

And it can’t be forgotten, as a child, Phoenix had none of her own. In a sense, she was but a pawn in the act of everyone else exercising their own professional and personal autonomy, no matter their good intentions.

In terms of how it was broached today, former Winnipeg CFS supervisor Lorna Hanson described how social workers, at least in 2000-2001, had leeway in terms of how and when they reported their handwritten case notes into a case file.

(It maybe need not be said that when it comes to getting at the truth of what happened to Phoenix, notes — and the lack thereof — has become a major concern. More on this another time.)

“There’s some discretion of the social worker” on when notes go into the file, Hanson said. “Workers have to use some of their professional experience and discretion in those types of things.”

If we look closely at the evidence so far, we know there are far, far more examples of discretionary actions in this case. Maybe too many to count.

A small handful, in no particular order, would be (links as I can find them):

  • The decision by the hospital in April 2001 to allow Echo to return home with Kematch with little intervention despite knowing at least something about the family’s past issues.
  • The decision by CFS worker Delores Chief-Abigosis to not pursue the family’s case more aggressively in early 2001 after Kematch got snippy with her during the only home visit she did on the file where she notes seeing Phoenix. In fact much of her involvement — or lack thereof — could possibly be put down to discretion, as she has no recall of virtually anything and her notes about working on the case are scant.
  • The decision by Winnipeg CFS to allow Kematch and Sinclair to take Phoenix home with them prior to Kematch undergoing a psychological evaluation.
  • The decision by Winnipeg CFS to not pursue a full-blown parenting assessment conducted by a psychologist for Kematch, cited as being “costly.” the agency could have done this if they wanted.
  • Steve Sinclair’s (reported by CFS, anyways) decision to reject offers of voluntary agency services in the wake of Echo’s death in July 2001.
  • Kathy Epps and Lorna Hanson’s decision to close the Sinclair file in October 2001 despite not having physically seen Phoenix.
  • Kerri-Lynn Greeley’s decision on what to tell Dr. Gary Altman about the agency’s concerns prior to assessing (wait: ‘consulting’) with Kematch on Sept. 13, 2000
  • Altman’s decision to not meet with Kematch privately instead of with Sinclair and Phoenix in the room during said assessment.
  • Andrew Orobko’s decision to destroy his notes, material or immaterial as they may be.
  • Roberta Dick’s (and her supervisor’s) choice to mark a five-day response on a safety assessment in 2003, not the 48-hour assessment she now believes it should have been.
  • The decision by some internal investigators to not interview or consult some of the people involved when reviewing the case after Phoenix’s murder was discovered.
  • The decision by Karl McKay and Kematch to abuse, torture and murder an innocent little girl and callously bury her near a dump. No one can say they lacked the discretion to not do this.
  • Virtually every social worker’s case notations on the case are a matter of discretion. ‘Note this, not that.’ ‘This is important information to document.’ ‘That’s not.’

The list goes on and on in this case, and would also extend all the way up the ladder to government decision making.

People, professional people, paid to make decisions — in what sounds like awful circumstances — in cases involving children’s lives.

It goes without saying that without discretion, our world would decent into rule-book procedural chaos. Absolutely everything. I get that.

I’m generally okay with the idea that prosecutors and police officers, for example, should be allowed a measure of individual discretion in their different roles of trying to protect the public peace.

But CFS social workers aren’t cops. They aren’t Crowns.

They aren’t sworn or uniformed to protect and serve. Last I heard they labour under no oaths and aren’t even, by and large, registered with an oversight agency as registered nurses are.

That’s despite the fact they work in a clandestine system (words like ‘apprehension’ and ‘report,’ ‘crisis response’ and ‘investigation’ are pivotal CFS terms) which plays a major policing role to safeguard the well-being of our most vulnerable citizens.

Look, I don’t believe for a second that anyone would go through the effort and costs to become a social worker if they had any ill-intent.

But when Hanson testified today she believes that every social worker in the child-welfare system should receive mandated, standardized training, my jaw dropped.

‘That doesn’t already happen?,’ I thought.

It’s my belief — and I’m willing to be called out for being wrong — that when Commissioner Hughes issues his report on Phoenix’s case next fall, he’ll point to ‘discretion’ as a a major issue of why she got away from the system — from all of us — and wound up so horribly killed.

[Addendum: I just realized there was one additional example of ‘discretion’ I failed to mention: It’s incumbent on the government to ensure the social-welfare system is adequately resourced — especially when it comes to the protection of children. While I accept there’s been a number of efforts in recent years to address this, my understanding is more could still be done.]


6 thoughts on ““The better part of Valour, is Discretion”

    1. The topic has come up in reference more than a few times now. However, an analysis of the philosophy and policy behind devolution [and the Child Welfare demands of the AJI] won’t happen until the new year. Stay tuned. I have a feeling that despite what we’re hearing today with regards to the system in 2000-2005, the government will offer some reasonable insights. Devolution wasn’t like changing a tire. It was a massive shakeup of the system.

  1. For what it’s worth, I checked the names of all of the CFS employees up and down the chain of command over Phoenix’s involvement with CFS and found only TWO who are currently registered with MIRSW. That means only two who are Registered Social Workers (RSW). That means they are currently registered, have a standards and ethics to which they are held accountable (external to employers) and have a complaints process (external to the employer) which a member of the public may appeal if they have concerns about a member’s conduct.

    There appears to be a lot of confusion around registration, regulation, education, accountability, standards etc of social workers. What I can tell you is that anybody with the time, money, and requisite academic skills can earn a university degree. Maintaining registration involves a criminal records check, acceptance of standards and ethical behaviour, submission to a complaints process. A degree is yours to keep, registration may be removed for cause.

    At present, social work is not a self-regulating profession in Manitoba as it is in other Canadian jurisdictions. Employer requirements of a social worker’s education and/or registration vary.

    1. Thank you for doing that — isn’t that interesting? I didn’t know there was a checkable registry. I sincerely appreciate the information. I find it odd that registration with an oversight body isn’t required, as it is for lawyers, doctors, many nurses, pharmacists, etc. Social workers — especially ones in the child-welfare field — clearly make some vital decisions about people’s lives.

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