Child-protection “a safety net, not a drag net” Queensland child-welfare a Manitoba mirror

(Phoenix Sinclair)
(Phoenix Sinclair)

As players in Manitoba’s Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry prepare to return to hearings later this month to present their final submissions to Commissioner Ted Hughes, a sweeping review of child-protection in the Australian state of Queensland has wrapped up with a full report on problems and solutions now in the hands of government.

From even just  brief reading of the report [presented in full below], those involved in the PSI would do well to give it full, close reading.

It seems there’s an uncanny wealth of analogies to be made between their situation and the one Manitoba’s in.

Some quick excerpts:

1) “The enduring net effect of the implementation of recommendations from previous inquiries has been a systemic shift towards statutory child protection. This shift has been reinforced by a growing risk-averse culture in the department that promotes a forensic, rather than therapeutic, approach to child protection. Instead of investing in family support and other secondary services, departmental funds since 2000 have been directed to meeting the ever-increasing demand on the tertiary system.”

2) “According to most of the indicators currently used by policy makers to measure activities designed to safeguard vulnerable children, Queensland’s child protection system is under mounting stress. Over the last decade:

  • the number of child protection intakes has tripled (from 33,697 in 2001–02 to 114,503 in 2011–12)
  • the number of children in out-of-home care has more than doubled (from 3,257 in 2002 to 7,999 in 2012)
  • the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care has tripled (from 12 children per 1,000 population in care in 2002 to 42 per 1,000 in care in 2012)
  • children in care are staying there for longer periods (with an increase in the proportion of children exiting care after one year or more from 38 per cent in 2001– 02 to 64 per cent in 2011–12).

In addition, while caseloads for child protection workers have fallen in recent years, they are still exceeding a manageable and sustainable level, and lifetime prospects for children leaving the care system continue to be poor.

Community concern about this unsatisfactory state of affairs led to the current government making an election commitment to review the child protection system with a view to finding the best possible outcomes for our most vulnerable children and their families.

3) “[T]he Commission is convinced by the argument (backed up by evidence) that wherever possible it is better for the child to stay at home — better for the child, better for the family and better for society as a whole. By supporting parents, we not only keep families together but we give parents an opportunity to contribute to their community.

Queensland’s situation is not unique. Similar problems can be found throughout Australia and across the western world. However, Queensland’s fiscal situation has made it imperative that it find out what is causing the system to malfunction, and to identify an affordable remedy.

I note of interest the title of the massive Queensland report: “Taking responsibility.”

I’ll be reading it in full with great interest. July 22 is the date the PSI is due to be back in session.

Bits at the end of a long, newsy week Part 1 — Phoenix

Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 8.13.14 PMFrom the stunning turns of events in Boston and Texas to, locally, the provincial budget and the government’s plan to hike of the PST as of July, it’s been a hell of a week for news.

(Great blog on the budget here, BTW. h/t Cherenkov. I appreciate honesty too.)

But on top of emerging craziness, the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry resumed witness testimony after several weeks off, partly due to the delay caused by perceptions of conflict.

And while the evidence heard this week was at times disturbing and concerning (Cpl. Rob Baker’s testimony, along Alison Kakewash’s hit me personally like a ton of bricks), I’ve been turning my mind more often lately to what Commissioner Hughes could be making of it all.

As we approach what’s sure to be the gloomy end of Phase 1 on Tuesday or Wednesday, it strikes me there are two nuts-and-bolts recommendations Hughes could make today to fulfil his mandate to help better protect Manitoba kids.

Technology

This been a frequent underlying issue at the hearings so far. An old Child and Family Services database (CFSIS) limping along. Lack of consistent Internet access for CFS agencies outside major centres. That lack of infrastructure leading to a ‘why bother’ kind of attitude from workers, leading, in turn, to a lack of due diligence in doing things like Prior Contact Checks — the very thing which could have “changed everything” in Phoenix’s case. I’m reasonably sure Hughes has turned his mind several times now to the technology issue. There’s no reason in this day and age all communities shouldn’t have proper access to the CFS computer system. We can put infrastructure in remote areas to ensure VLT/Casino data is accessed daily. Surely we can do the same for child-welfare services.

Last fall, the Auditor General specifically noted that the province has been slow to implement a number of key recommendations dating back to a 2006 CFS audit — and electronic case management and tracking was among them. So obviously the powers that be are aware of the problem.

The Auditor General noted a plan to completely replace the CFSIS system stalled in 2009 and by time of writing hadn’t had an update:

Screen Shot 2013-04-20 at 6.34.47 PM
(From Fall 2012 AG followup report)

Screen Shot 2013-04-20 at 6.35.06 PM

Inter-departmental and external agency information sharing

This is a fundamental issue. And when you have a veteran cop like Cpl. Baker saying sharing between various government agencies — such as CFS, Employment and Income Assistance, Health and police — could be better, it probably could be better.

Instead, we’ve heard several times now how people’s fears at violating privacy and health privacy legislation has led to slowdowns in the investigative process. Baker said RCMP, his police service, has no issues quickly sharing certain information with agencies conducting “like minded” investigations — but found when investigating Phoenix’s homicide there was pushback from CFS when he hoped to access sealed “child in care” files held by a CFS agency. Luckily, EI investigators were ready and willing to co-operate and set up the ultimate “sting” which exposed Kematch and McKay — and Phoenix’s death — nine months after it happened.

Workers investigating a child-protection case shouldn’t be hamstrung by having to invoke “magic words” to glean information quickly out of other agencies who may have valuable data, and vice versa. Any abuses could be ferreted out with a strong quality-assurance program. Information is like oxygen to investigators of all stripes. If we believe they are working towards valuable goals [like the safety of at-risk kids], they shouldn’t have to fight for information.

But it’s a contentious issue, for sure. Even police agencies can’t figure out a way to co-operate when it comes to data sharing, as this (to my mind, sad) report out of Alberta suggests.

Queensland, Australia child-welfare inquiry

Interesting (350-page) read below:

A massive child-welfare inquiry in Australia is about to wrap up with a final report from its commissioner by June, likely earlier. What’s relevant is how many issues there are echoed over here, particulary the concerning rise in the number of kids being taken into care, largely because of neglect, not abuse.

The website is a model for future inquiries, I feel. It’s easy to find the disclosure, they took it on themselves to live-stream it, and staff even communicate with the public via social media. As well, people are encouraged to participate by sending submissions to the commissioner.

While I’m not knocking the effort for Phoenix’s inquiry — communications staff have bent over backwards at times to ensure media have been given proper access — but perhaps a few more of the $9.6 million we’re currently spending could have gone into making the proceedings and website more accessible to the public, virtually all of whom can’t make it to take in the hearings during working hours.

The design is a bit dated — and it’s very difficult to navigate the disclosure which has been presented, unless you note page numbers as you go along.

Here’s the recent discussion paper from the Australian affair. I’d love to foster a discussion about it with readers, so chime in in the comments and we’ll make it happen somehow. Perhaps through a live blog of some kind.

[Part two of this post will look at a few other non-PSI things I dug up this week, including an interesting tale about the infamous Darrell Ackman, AKA Mr. JetzTV]

——–

Late edit: I just wanted to point out some things which have been picking at me, relating to the internal CFS documents tabled at the inquiry.

Look closely at this, for one example:

Screen Shot 2013-04-20 at 8.05.15 PM

This was the file closing of Shelly Wiebe from December 2004.

Notice how her surname is typed one way — IE —

But her signature states it’s EI.

That’s odd, no? Who misspells their name in their signature?

Here’s another oddity, from this week’s report from Intertribal CFS.

Screen Shot 2013-04-20 at 8

Why is it that it’s the same report  — just one page apart (you can see the page break) — but the formatting in terms of spacing is so different? It’s weird.

There’s been a few other instances of documentary oddness. I’ll add them as I come across them.

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REDHEAD INQUEST: The Joyal decision in full

(Jaylene Sanderson-Redhead)
(Jaylene Sanderson-Redhead)

In recent months, the Redhead inquiry was dealing with a request by Awasis CFS  to have inquest Judge Larry Allen kicked off the case due to how he handled a social work witness.

Links: Here and here  With the position of my bosses at SunMedia on this important case here.

The agency’s bid — supported by the Northern Authority — went before Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal and was shot down.

Here’s Joyal’s written decision for the fullness of the record:

Phoenix Inquiry: Karl McKay’s digits and the perils of old technology

20120822-213238-g
(Karl McKay, 2006)

Exactly one month before a Winnipeg CFS worker went to probe an abuse complaint at Samantha Kematch’s home and left without physically seeing her daughter, another crisis-response worker along for the ride handled an unrelated call from her boyfriend, Karl Wesley (Wes) McKay.

And just two months before the Feb 9, 2005 intake unit referral Bill Leskiw handled, CFS had been scrambling to try and uncover information about McKay, but didn’t have his proper name or correct birthdate.

But a brief review of records tabled at the inquiry into Phoenix Sinclair’s death show that if internal files had been able to be cross-referenced by phone number at the time Leskiw dealt with McKay, CFS then had another chance to connect the dots and link the real Karl McKay to Samantha Kematch and Phoenix.

But it appears the limitations of the CFS computer system — CFSIS — in 2005 wouldn’t have allowed this. (CFSIS was created in 1993)

The inability of CFS to uncover who McKay actually was has been seen as a major turning point and failing of the child-welfare system in Phoenix’s case, with one supervisor saying uncovering the information likely would have “changed everything.”

Screen Shot 2013-01-16 at 6.28.25 PMHe and Kematch are serving life sentences for first-degree murder in connection to Phoenix’s June 14, 2005 death by horrific abuse. McKay was considered a “high risk” domestic violence offender who had a lengthy history with CFS and a major drinking problem.

Wednesday, the inquiry briefly tabled a document showing McKay called CFS and left a phone number of 783-7516.

That phone number is the same CFS had listed for Kematch when the agency became involved in her life after the birth of her fourth child on Nov. 30, 2004.

It’s also the number Kematch gave the welfare office and Manitoba Vital Statistics when applying for benefits days after the baby’s birth.

Given conduct of the case, worker Shelley Willox (then Wiebe) initially recommended — and her supervisor agreed — the file be transferred to a separate CFS unit to fully investigate Kematch, Phoenix and their living circumstances, also to get to the bottom of who “Wes McKay” was.

But the file was instead handed back to Willox for follow up, outside the expected practice within CFS, where CRU was only to hold files for up to 48 hours before transferring or closing them. She made calls trying to get information but found little at hand. The case was closed Dec. 7, 2004 citing a lack of child-protection concerns.

Fast forward to March 9, 2005, the day Leskiw and Christopher Zalevich met with Kematch at her home and left without seeing Phoenix despite the suspected abuse. Leskiw was only along for the ride as backup and said Wednesday he had no recall of the visit.

This became the last chance Winnipeg CFS would have to intervene in Phoenix’s life before Kematch and McKay moved to the Fisher River First Nation and murdered the little girl inside a home. Zalevich and his supervisor, Diva Faria, recommended the file be closed on the same day Zalevich visited the home and didn’t see Phoenix.

In the case history Zalevich was working off of, there’s no mention of McKay nor anything referring to the December 2004 intervention. It had been omitted after the worker who took the complaint cut-and-pasted the file history from other documents — a practice now forbidden in CFS crisis-response units.

Leskiw said he didn’t remember anything about the call that day or if Zalevich told him anything about why they were going to see Kematch.

He said there was no way for him to connect his February interaction with McKay with the call Zalevich was handling. “I have to focus on my own cases, my own files,” he said. No details of why McKay called CFS were discussed.

It was later disclosed in another record (April 18, 2005) relating to McKay’s ex that she had “adopted plans” to have one of McKay’s kids “stay with his birth dad, Karl McKay for the upcoming summer.” Leskiw was also referenced in that record as the “intake/service worker” at the time, but the record related to another CFS department.

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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.

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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.

CFS: If we won’t learn from history, we’ll just repeat it

(Jaylene Sanderson-Redhead)
(Jaylene Sanderson-Redhead)

“The reality has been that regardless of the political party in power, there has never been a concerted effort to look at the full requirements to make a child-welfare system that can at least reduce the problems. This should not be a partisan issue, but any (even partial) solutions take more time than the next election date, and hence are not sexy enough to warrant full commitment.” Dr. Keith Black, op-ed in WFP 05/01/2013

When someone as insightful and experienced as Winnipeg’s Keith Black*** speaks on Manitoba’s beleaguered child-welfare (CFS) system, why is it nobody with the power to change it appears to be listening?

Black’s article today speaks for itself, and I encourage all to read it closely.

Its pessimistic tone is perhaps justified coming from someone of his background: a veteran social worker and community leader who believes there’s a better way to do things — or at least, he says, if there’s a will, there’s a way.

The problem, Black pretty plainly states, is the will only exists to ‘fix’ CFS to the point that it won’t cost political points in a future election. He’s careful to note that this isn’t an NDP issue, but instead one that afflicts the political system as a whole.

Black references how in the ’60s he took flak from all sides for helping pen an article describing Manitoba’s child-welfare was in chaos (the exact words from the Manitoba Association of Social Workers at the time were ‘in a chaotic state,’ as far as my trip through the FP archives at the downtown library show me, and it may have been the early 70s — but I couldn’t find the specific article of which he speaks, only references to it):

Screen Shot 2013-01-05 at 3.21.06 PMLook closely at what the article says, right up top:

“I would agree to the extent that there are unmet needs, inadequate procedures and systems to meet those needs, insufficient co-ordination between the various sectors in the child welfare field,” Mitchell C. Neiman said on Dec. 1, 1971. (41923151)

The MASW, according to FP reporter Wally Dennison, had echoed virtually the same issues in its brief to a minister of the minority NDP government, headed by Ed Schreyer at the time. It was also calling for standards of child welfare to be set, as it appears there were virtually none in place.

It’s curious because a lack of inter-agency co-operation and failure and inability to adhere to standards are very much live issues in the investigations into the Phoenix Sinclair case (2000-2006) and in the Jaylene Redhead case (2007-2009), decades after the MASW’s warning.

Less than a year later, in 1972, another Dennison article speaks to the government’s plans for CFS: namely, taking over the responsibility for child welfare and doing away with the Children’s Aid Society for good. The reaction to this from workers appeared extremely negative, for a number of reasons.

Notably, the article states:

Screen Shot 2013-01-05 at 3.33.07 PM“These skeptics note that the department proceeded with its reorganization while ignoring the experiences gained by People’s Opportunity Services at 600 Main Street — A $250,000 federally-financed demonstration project initiated in 1967 and which used 21 former welfare workers as case aides to offer a series of innovative services in Winnipeg’s core area. When the Project ended March 31, it was nothing more than a regional office of government and the case aides were now in “safe” jobs throughout the departmental bureaucracy, the critics contend. A successful experiment in social service delivery had been ignored because the Manitoba government already has made up its mind about how services are to be delivered.” (44827139 PDF)

Which brings me to my first point: It may be impossible to ‘fix’ anything about CFS if politics is allowed to trump solid and intelligent policy to fuel its actions.

Sadly, we see evidence of this happening often in Manitoba.

Political/ideological interference in essential services, be they policing, corrections, education or child-welfare/family services prevents solid, evidence-based policy from being the starting point from which services flow.

While I’m not an advocate of privatization of the CFS system, I do believe there has to be a way to ‘divorce’ such services from the whims of government and insulate them from short-term tinkering [if not complete overhauls].

Critics of devolution – which at root is a well-meaning scheme to create greater fairness and client buy-in in the CFS system — will be first in line to hammer the government based on the above. The real criticism I have of it is how it appears it was rammed into place come hell or high water regardless of the internal chaos and confusion the new policy and its practicalities created.

Anyhow. I want to come back to where we started off: When Keith Black speaks, why don’t we seem to listen?

About 18 months after Phoenix Sinclair was born and not long after the NDP again took power, Black again penned an op-ed for the Winnipeg Free Press.

He had just retired.

Screen Shot 2013-01-05 at 4.11.45 PMOn Dec. 4, 2001 he wrote (I can’t link to it directly, sorry, there’s no way to do it):

“IN the 1960s, the Manitoba Association of Social Workers wrote an article that suggested that the child welfare system in Winnipeg was in “chaos.” All hell broke loose, and there were angry denials and counter-arguments.

After 40 years of working in and around children’s services in Winnipeg, until my recent retirement, I have seen nothing to suggest that MASW was wrong then or would be wrong now. And the chaos is much wider than the specific Child and Family Services system.

… For decades the structural debates have hidden the real problem; namely that child welfare is a political rather than a therapeutic or service issue. The increase in training, understanding, even technology has been implemented, and the poor line workers struggle against immense odds just to understand their role and get through the day without anyone getting hurt. The people with whom other agencies and forces are not co-operating have doomed any of the structures to failure.

…Winnipeg is blessed with competent, hard working and dedicated people serving children and families. The shame is that their efforts have been diminished because of the distrust, suspicion, dislike or fear that lies behind the superficial smiles and handshakes at receptions, workshops and annual meetings. And as long as political agendas determine how services are to be organized, and we steadfastly refuse to learn how to work together – political left and political right and all colours – we will simply repeat the pattern of chaos that is the real world of service to Winnipeg’s most vulnerable and needy citizens.”

It’s curious to me how much of what he had to say 12 years ago mirrors nearly exactly what he told us again today.

I wish, as I’m sure he does, that we had listened or would at least begin to.

Because it appears nearly half a century has passed and a very real problem we have to tackle hasn’t gone away, maybe even isn’t seen as worth dealing with, when really, it’s fundamental.

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*** In addition to his experience as a social worker and social-work official with the MASW and MIRSW, Black is a noted community leader, in 2004, the University conferred on him an honorary degree, saying:

  • Keith Black, BA, BSW, MSW (Class of 1960), will receive an Honorary Doctor of Laws. Over a career spanning more than 40 years, Black was a social worker at the Children’s Aid Society, Executive Director of Knowles School for Boys, and Director of the Child Guidance Clinic of Winnipeg. He was a valued member of The University of Winnipeg Board of Regents for 13 years and served as chair from 1996-98.

Phoenix Inquiry: What CFS had on Karl (Carl?) ‘Wes’ (Wesley?) McKay and — when

Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 8.13.14 PM
(Phoenix was murdered by Karl McKay and Samantha Kematch in 2005, months after CFS last had contact with her)

The last couple of days of testimony have delved into and exposed — to some decent degree — the fact CFS workers never searched out Karl Wesley McKay’s background or did a “prior contact check”  in the CFS database. Nor, it must be said — did CFS even ask for his full name when they discovered he was staying with Samantha Kematch and Phoenix in July 2004.

I’ve done stories here, and here on this vital issue. I don’t use the word vital lightly.

Here’s how it was put by former Winnipeg CFS intake supervisor Carolyn Parsons today of what happened when McKay’s name surfaced for the second time in 2004 on Dec. 1.

“I think if in this time we had been able to determine Mr. McKay’s history — that certainly would have changed everything and I think that’s something that every person who’s been involved with this situation wishes had happened.”

At that time, they entered the name they had in the CFSIS database and gave it a Jan. 1, 1980 date of birth — a typical practice when a person’s actual birthdate couldn’t be located.

Today, inquiry staff released an exhibit from the province as to what CFS workers would have found if they had been able to track his name in the system. It’s apparent there was confusion — and the issue exposes what was an apparent limitation of the computer system at the time.

Sometimes the first name McKay used was Carl, other times Wesley, sometimes Wesley Carl,  Wes and finally, Karl. Seems the only time in 2004 his real name appeared was on May 28, 2004 after he marched into a welfare office and tried to claim Phoenix on his budget.

Sadly, his name wouldn’t be conclusively linked to Kematch’s case in the CFS database until March 15, 2006 — five days after RCMP announced Phoenix’s death had been uncovered and McKay and Kematch arrested. I note with interest that RCMP at the time spelled his first name as “Carl.”

It was also around the very day RCMP laid first-degree murder charges against the despicable pair for the murder of Phoenix through abuse and confinement in a cold basement.

If CFS had dug into his background in 2004, they would have found him referenced in eight separate files dating back from March 1996 to fall 2000 when his partner’s two kids (one of them was his) were made permanent wards of CFS.

Here’s a just few lowlights of the disclosed files — and this is certainly not exhaustive:

  • April 1998: CFS informed McKay had (again) beaten up on his partner at the time, breaking her nose. Investigators felt neither he nor she had “any insight into the impact this was having on the two children and the potential risk to them … Probation services later advised of the severity of the assaults on ** by Carl McKay. These included him having taken the supporting leg off the bathroom sink and beating her with it.”
  • June 1998: One of the kids is found wearing only a diaper and a sweatshirt on the corner of William Avenue and Isabel Street in the company of a drunk male. “She was immediately apprehended,” the agency said.
  • Sept. 25 2008: “Wesley left a phone message stating (his partner) was an alcoholic and had problems. Wesley sounded as though he was intoxicated. He appeared to be very vindictive and left the message out of revenge.”
  • Early 1999: McKay fails to follow through in family violence programming and a “better fathering group” … “he failed to internalize his violent offending behaviour and had persisted in denying and/or minimizing the problem. It was apparent to probation services that Carl was only complying with the order minimally because he felt forced to do so.”
  • February 1999: His then partner heads to a shelter but is stays only a few days before going back to McKay. “It was her contention that the reasons she reconciled with him was that she had nowhere else to go.”
  • March 1999: “Report comes in through CFS that … (she) had been assaulted by Carl McKay.”
  • 1999: McKay is described as being “uncooperative” the agency.

Under a section called “identified problems,” a worker in September 2000 — the same month Kematch regained custody of Phoenix — wrote: “Carl Wesley McKay poses a threat to the children both directly and indirectly in terms of his propensity for violence,” and that he has little or “any insight into the impact … lifestyles have had on the two children. ”

Under ‘interventions,’ the worker says both McKay and his then-partner were “directed to participate in programming to address addictions issues, domestic violence, anger management, issues of victimization only to be met with failure.”

“My own contact with Mr. McKay has been non-existent in spite of several attempts. On several occasions I attended to his residence at (redacted) in order to serve him with court documents but without any success. In co-operation with probation services. I attended to the Law Courts building on the date of one of his court appearances for Breach of Probation. However he failed to appear in court.”

In June 2000, a worker wrote McKay was “identified by probation services as an extremely high offender re: domestic assault”

Like I said above, this was not exhaustive of what the files contain. But it spells out a little further what a risk McKay was.

McKay on the record in 2003, but not on CFS radar

That said — It hasn’t been mentioned yet that McKay’s name actually surfaced much earlier than 2004 — a year earlier in fact, and still no one appeared to ask who he was.

Note the date: This was right after Phoenix was taken into care a second time and Kematch suddenly surfaced after nearly two years expressing an interest in parenting her.

Most importantly: Note how McKay’s name is spelled . Odd, isn’t it? Odd because that’s the correct spelling.

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Now: here’s what the worker present — Laura Forrest had to say in her testimony about McKay’s appearance in court that day:

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“I asked her the name and she gave me the name and I believe a date of birth,” Laura Forrest said. It’s in my addendum, she said.

Here’s the relevant section of that addendum:

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“Worker learned that Samantha has been in a relationship with (redacted) DUB- October 12, 1974 – for two years. has met Phoenix and has some knowledge about the situation, but Samantha did not feel comfortable discussing all the issues in front of him. (redacted) companied Samantha to court.”

It’s Karl McKay’s name on the court transcript.

But his actual birthdate is March 28, 1962, not October ’74. Was it him? Or just another of Kematch’s lies to CFS?

Note how Forrest phrased this in her testimony: “I asked her his name and she gave me the name and I believe a date of birth.”

One thing’s apparent: It’s too bad questions weren’t posed directly to McKay himself.

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Just for the heck of it, here’s a letter Probation Services wrote to CFS in 1999 about McKay.

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Page 2:

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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

————-

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.