Phoenix Inquiry: The Trigg memo and a history lesson

Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 8.13.14 PMThe inquiry this week is moving further into its exploration of what was going on behind the scenes within Winnipeg CFS from 2001-2004.

We’ve already heard a bit of evidence from Dr. Linda Trigg, who at the time was the CEO of the agency at a time of massive systemic change, coming on the heels of a separate restructuring which was never fully completed from the late 90s.

Trigg has already told us of a loss of community contact between front-line social workers as well as talked about how funding was in short supply — or that willingness to hike funding to operations as they were in the wake of the incoming ‘devolution’ wasn’t on the table.

Workloads were very high, as was anxiety and uncertainty about the changes underway.

The inquiry was shown a memo she wrote to familiarize the new interim Winnipeg CFS board with what was going on internally. I present what’s available here.

Pay close attention in it to her comments on the troubles within the intake unit and how it is to be restructured as part of the devolution process.

Also, note the following chart on levels of experience within the units and the relative youth and inexperience on the “key and front-line” family service positions. Staring down massive uncertainty, workers with experience appeared to find “safe haven” in other areas of CFS. Seniority was the main means of transferring, meaning Trigg was unable — as she says she was told — to simply “move” people to suit the agency’s needs.

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When you’re done with that, take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with this 2003 expert review of the process — and more importantly — the history of the devolution (AJI-CWI) implementation process. The history provides the context.

Keep your eye on passages referencing funding and expectations.

“However, the critical issue is funding. There is an expectation among service providers that new funding will be needed in order toenable more than a tokenistic gesture towards the development of a new service paradigm for child and family services. At present, the Province expects such a shift in services to occur through the reallocation of existing resources.”

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Phoenix Inquiry: Truth and its consequences

Phoenix Sinclair
Phoenix Sinclair

 “People can’t make choices they didn’t know they had” — wise Manitoba lawyer

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I’ve never met Steve Sinclair. I don’t really know the first thing about him.

But over the past few weeks I’ve had to really watch myself — to guard against the conceit that I somehow do.

Ever since testimony really got underway in the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry a few weeks back, I’ve spent more than a few moments pondering her dad.

To be more specific: I’ve been trying to put my head around what it might be like to see intimate personal details about your troubled life through your childhood and young adulthood be cast out into the street for all to bear witness to day after day after day for all to see.

Manitoba is undertaking an inquiry into Phoenix Sinclair’s short existence, for sure — but in many instances it’s also appeared to have taken on the shape and form of a microscopic examination of Steve’s life as well.

I suppose it’s unavoidable. No. That’s just wrong. It is unavoidable.

It would be simply impossible to get to the bottom of what actions CFS took (or, as it’s becoming more clear didn’t take but maybe could have) during Phoenix’s all-too-short lifetime without proffering explicit details about Sinclair’s life and the circumstances which informed it before and after after his daughter was born.

We’ve been given a lot of information about Sinclair’s troubled past and, it must be said, reputed failings as a father. But those observations have largely all been filtered through the sieve of the minds, priorities and discretionary note-taking and observations of social workers and other CFS officials.

Sinclair drank heavily at times, we’re told. Couldn’t stay sober enough to hang on to Phoenix at one point. Appears to have abandoned her and vanished at another. Came from a background of CFS involvement and family abuse. Was on welfare. Didn’t seem to work.

And, it perhaps goes without saying: At least one time in his life Sinclair displayed horrible taste in whom he became romantically involved with.

But lost in the bureaucratic morass of case summaries, field visits and wrangling over lost notes and the imprecise departmental distinctions between safety and risk, there’s clearly another side to Sinclair.

To put it simply: It’s pretty apparent he tried.

Tried to play by the CFS rules to be a good dad despite a gloomy history of involvement with CFS agencies, its agents and foster homes over his lifetime. Tried to be a dad to his daughter in circumstances most would find beyond trying or manageable.

And likely, although it hasn’t been explicitly stated, seems to have tried to overcome his reputation as a “passive resistant” CFS client.

Hell, his real name is Nelson Draper Steve Sinclair, but consistently CFS workers refer and referred to him as “Steven.” [I’ve done this too in two separate reports and I felt horribly.]

Think about how remarkable Sinclair’s efforts are, really. Think of them in the context of the sickening and judgemental tenor of our society’s (mostly anonymous) gum-flapping about “welfare bums” and “natives” abusing the social-welfare system. Not to mention within the often-mentioned reality  that aboriginal communities need fathers to step up. (More: Here).

More kids equals more free government assistance cash. Blah, blah, blah. (God, how our criticisms have become dismally uninformed and trite.)

I’m asking you to regard Sinclair within the context of the inquiry’s evidence so far.

That being: Sinclair as a young aboriginal man who clearly had little to no material wealth or grand future prospects and who didn’t just throw up his hands when his daughter was born and seized by CFS.

He agreed to work with the agency. And he did. As far as we’ve been made aware, between April 2000 and at least February 2001, he met all the demands placed on him. He, Kematch and Phoenix appeared to have a stable home life.

Then came April 2001 and the birth of Echo, his second daughter. It’s impossible to really know whether it was a lack of CFS diligence which allowed he and Kematch to leave the hospital without any CFS intervention (It was Delores Chief-Abigosis’s file at this point) or if it was because there were no child-protection concerns for Echo at the time.

Nevertheless, it’s pretty clear by now who was viewed as the real risk to Phoenix, and it wasn’t Sinclair.

When Kematch left their home a few weeks later with Echo in tow, it was Steve who picked up the ball and ran with it.

A couple of days later Kematch brought Echo back in a filthy state , leaving Sinclair a single dad who cared for both the kids, ostensibly with some help from friends. When Chief-Abigosis visited with him in July 2001, Steve was the person feeding Echo, holding her.

He and his sisters organized a sit-down with a worker this month to lay bare their concerns about what was going on in Steve’s life.

Then, Echo died suddenly of a respiratory infection, through no fault of Sinclair’s. Police quickly determined there was no foul play involved.

In the wake of Echo’s death, CFS says they offered Steve services on a voluntary basis. We don’t know yet why he rejected them — but it’s clear he was still working with community resources of some kind. I’ve never experienced such a great loss, so I won’t presume to get into Sinclair’s head as to what he was going through.

Months passed without apparent incident, except for Phoenix being brought to hospital in early 2003 with a thing in her nose, which may have been there for months. Worker Laura Forrest met with him soon after — at the same home he had lived in for about two years at this point.

She described Sinclair as “foul but sober” in her dealings with him. Insisting she’d return to see Phoenix, his reply, according to her, was “we’ll see about that.” How to interpret that properly? It’s impossible to know, really.

Phoenix would be be apprehended again June 22, 2003 after Sinclair apparently couldn’t get his act together enough to satisfy pairs of CFS workers he was able to care for Phoenix. There was no evidence whatsoever she was being abused in any way. Possible neglect was the real worry. Possible.

Phoenix was described emphatically by workers who sat with her in her the Place Louis Riel hotel room emergency placement as “well behaved,” as well as potty trained — so there had to be some parenting happening, some measure of honest care, in her life.

And although Kematch resurfaced at this point, making overtures to parent Phoenix, it was Sinclair who turned up in court on Aug. 13, 2003 with worker Stan Williams to say he wanted to resume parenting once he got things together.

Williams isn’t alive today to share his version and impressions of Steve, but through his boss, we learned he became a fierce advocate for the 21-year-old dad, believed in him to the point he’d basically — for right or wrong — convince his boss to get CFS to hand Phoenix back to Sinclair unconditionally on Oct. 2, 2003.

From there, it’s hard to say what the hell happened.

We do know CFS believes Phoenix somehow wound up in the care of Kematch for a while before she then mysteriously made her way to the safety of foster parent Rohan Stephenson, who, along with his ex, Kim, were good and trusted friends of Sinclair’s — people he (and CFS) trusted to care for Phoenix.

Had Sinclair gone off the rails and ditched out on being a dad?

He was hard to find — but it’s clear that when a worker finally spoke with him on Feb. 5, 2004, he agreed the best thing for Phoenix was for her to stay with the Stephensons as an unofficial place of safety. In a sense — that action was his doing right by Phoenix.

And that’s where we’re left off for now. Yes, there are gaps. Yes, there are some questionable decisions Sinclair made.

But he didn’t ever, ever appear to hurt his little girl — and he certainly didn’t murder her. Neglect her at times, perhaps, sure.

Wednesday morning, Sinclair is scheduled to take the witness stand.

We’re going to hear first-hand his side of the story. Why he chose to act as he did.

But to me, the inquiry — the most expensive such public proceeding in Manitoba’s history, and probably the most contentious — wouldn’t be possible without some major buy-in from Steve Sinclair, some continued effort on his part to see some kind of answers to what sounds like an easy question:

What the hell happened here?

Even in light of Phoenix’s death, Sinclair’s participation in the inquiry, to me, shows he was a father who cared.

And that’s a lot more than many, many other kids in Manitoba have.

We’re not in a position to judge Steve Sinclair.

People can’t make choices they didn’t know they had.

An ounce of prevention: Phoenix’s social worker, in-depth

Phoenix Sinclair

To say it’s disheartening hearing the evidence that’s coming out at the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry would be beyond an understatement.

But among the litany of facts painting the picture of major systemic breakdown — a portrait of ignominy becoming clearer each passing day — there are moments of fascinating clarity.

One of them came today, in the testimony of veteran CFS caseworker Laura Forrest, who, like many of her colleagues, was asked towards the end of her time on the stand to comment on the nature of the CFS system in general and improvements which could be made to it to better protect Manitoba kids.

Forrest handled Phoenix’s case for a few months, and despite her failure to physically see and visit the child in following up what was considered to be a low-risk potential maltreatment claim, it was Forrest who finally put together all the available information to determine the little girl’s background equalled nothing less than a high-risk situation.

And her parents’ negative attitude and disregard for CFS and its work was a huge factor in her finding, which a review noted was largely ignored a few weeks after she came to this conclusion.

Fast forward to today, and Forrest is no longer an intake worker with CFS, handling crises and complex cases as they poured in by the bucketsful.

She now works delivering services to families as a case worker — a step removed from the process of initial contact and assessment of cases by CFS. (EDIT: she’s actually doing foster-care placements, but left intake in 2009 to move to a family service position with CFS till recently).

Off the top, Forrest readily admitted her workload was high — if not huge — in her time in intake, and that continued till she left that unit in 2009. By then, several reviews of Phoenix’s case had been done, and changes implemented by officials to try and ensure no similar situation ever happened again.

“My practice was to do the best I could with what I had,” she said.

Forrest says she was never consulted or interviewed about any of the reviews that were done or findings made, something she says she would have liked to have seen happen just because the investigations analyzed her work. It also may have been educational for her, she said.

“What’s the answer to workload issues?,” Commission lawyer Sherri Walsh asked her today — toward the end of Forrest’s lengthy testimony.

She paused a while before speaking.

“I guess, it’s a big answer. Because it’s not as simple as telling a system, ‘these are all these standards you should be following and that will take care of everything. We deal with really complex family situations. And depending on where they’re coming from, lack of community resources, increased issues with respect to addictions, mental health, which makes things much more complicated – families placing their children into care at much more, much higher numbers.

The system can try and change as much as it can sometimes, but if everything else around, in our community is also escalating in terms of their needs and their problems that they’re trying to deal with, I don’t know how we can keep up, to be honest.”

“In my experience — over 20 years — things have changed. It’s not easier to do my job.

Not withstanding changes in the system?

“Yeah. I mean, I think that we all try to do the very best that we can, whether people can believe that or not. We have a lot of hope, we have a lot of belief that people can make changes, that families can make changes. Sometimes I find if I didn’t have those, that would be very very difficult, because sometimes that’s all you have with a family.

So, is very simply one answer to the workload concerns reducing the need? Prevention?

“Well, prevention would be helpful. So if you could look at some prevention programs that could be in place even within [the] system, we had those — we had a couple of them — and they were helpful in terms of dealing with families that had teenagers out of control. But those programs were changed and something else came about as a result of that. So I think that it would be helpful if we found practical interventions that would actually really, adequately meet family needs in a realistic fashion.

We can tell them what we think we need them to do, but if they can’t do it because they don’t have enough food, they don’t — they’re struggling maintaining the three or four or two kids in their home because they’re a single parent and they don’t have a lot of resources  — I think we have to be fair and mindful that these are people that are working hard to do the best they can.

We have to come up with better solutions as to what we can offer them for intervention. So that could be helpful — some practical intervention, some more practical and more available resources. I always hope for that and I know other people do. And I know the community resources try as much as they can as well with what they have. But, you know, to say that one system has to make all the change and that will take care of everything and no child will be harmed again — I don’t know if that’s going to happen by just looking at one system.

You say that protecting children can’t just be put on the shoulders of the child-welfare system. 

“We have that burden. But it would be helpful if we had other supports and resources. Not for us, but for the families.

We talked about community resources and addressing issues of poverty, employment, education, child care — those are all things that would help, ultimately, with workload?

“Yeah. These are all the things that our families struggle with and we have to try and help them overcome those. Sometimes it’s very difficult.

Was there anything about (Phoenix’s family’s) circumstances, either in terms of their factual circumstances or the nature of services that were being delivered by the agency that stood out in your mind as compared to other families that you were working with?

“This family situation was fairly similar to many families I had dealt with. Whether it was single parent dealing with addictions issues, conflict with the other parent, struggling to manage in child care, relying on other family members. It wasn’t unique in itself. There are certain things about it that make them different but often times I dealt with families that struggled with poverty … parenting … addictions … mental health. It was more common than not.

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You can follow my live blog on the inquiry by finding any Phoenix-related story on the home page of the Winnipeg Sun website.