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.

For the Record: Fort Rouge arson-prevention meeting

(Staff Sgt. Kelly Dennison is a supervisor in District 6, and a former Public Information Officer for the Winnipeg Police Service)

About 100 Fort Rouge residents gathered Wednesday night to her presentations from fire officials and police about the rash of arsons in the area.

Bill Clark from the WFPS gave a great and concise presentation, as did one officer from the Fire Commissioner’s Office who’s name I didn’t catch.

But, as I suspected would happen, it was the police district representative, Staff Sgt. Kelly Dennison, who was on his feet the most to respond to people’s concerns during the Q and A portion.

And, I might add, there was much buzz in the Twitterverse about how cadets are used in the city based on reported comments by Dennison in the Free Press at a separate meeting the night before. Specifically, the implication was there in the story that the province and police service wouldn’t allow the blue-shirts to work anywhere but downtown. Some were upset there was no follow up to clarify this statement because cadets have appeared in many places in the city.

I didn’t make that meeting, but I did the next night. What’s presented below are Dennison’s comments to two questions, reprinted verbatim. Any questions about accuracy and I’ll post the audio on Archive.org.

I won’t make any comments regarding what Dennison says below.

But I wonder if the service knew how popular the Cadet program was to be when it dreamed it up a few years back.

People in the area clearly appear to be pondering lately the level of police service they’re able to access.

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Question: “This question is for District 6 (Dennison)  — are you using bicycle patrols and or cadets in the wee hours to patrol? [Inaudible] fires have been set between 2 and 4 a.m. Are you using that [inaudible]?”

Dennison: “The Winnipeg Police Service does have a very small bicycle unit. The District 6 police, themselves, they do not. Our Community Support officers are not deployed on bicycles in your area — in this area at this time. So I guess the easy answer to that is, ‘no, we don’t have police officers on bicycles — full time — here in District 6.

We do have the opportunity and ability to import officers that do ride bicycles. We have a small unit of those officers that, upon request from myself or a division commander, we can ask for those officers to come in to our division and help us with some patrols.

As far as the cadets go — I don’t know if you guys are all aware — cadets were very active in this last investigation, very active in assisting us in this community. They were here, they spent countless hours walking in our community and up and down the streets.

They’re basically, as you know, the eyes and ears for the police officers that are out there, so they have been here. I can tell you that the Cadet program is something that — as you all know already — is relatively new to the Winnipeg Police Service. It’s not a program that’s been around for a long time. It does have some growing pains, and it is expanding. This program is expanding.

Those officers, currently, are being deployed by the police service, basically, for efficiency and operational needs. And you have to understand that it’s one unit, and the police service, our service, has to take a look at the entire city.

In saying that, however, there are bright things in the future for that program, I can tell you that. And we are hoping that more cadets are coming online and we do anticipate seeing cadets in your community in the future.

Please don’t ask me a date or time for that, sorry, I can’t do that for you. That’s basically where we stand with that.

[clapping]

Question: Paul Hesse, Liberal candidate in upcoming provincial election: Some of the things we heard last night [at a meeting at a Stafford Street church] was that community support officers in this area have been redeployed out of the area. So one question I have is: Can we ever expect community support officers to remain deployed here, or is there just a shortage of officers throughout the city and more resources needed? Also, there has been a safety plan developed downtown, I understand there hasn’t been a formal safety plan developed in the Osborne Village or Fort Rouge areas [inaudible] create one? My third question is there has been [inaudible] for more foot patrols, especially in the Osborne Village area, and also we’re hearing that request in this area, [inaudible] expansion of the cadet program — what would be needed to make that happen

[clapping]

Dennison: Ok, I’ll try and go through that as best I can. Yes it is true that the community support unit that is in your area has been redeployed downtown. That redeployment came as a result of very, very serious incidents that we’re all probably aware of here in the City of Winnipeg.

Those officers and their skill set and expertise was required in a different part of the city to deal with some very, very serious crimes that we have going on right now. I hope you can all please understand that — and I’m sure you do — that when we have serious crime in the City of Winnipeg, as a police service, it’s incumbent on us to deal with that crime as a whole no matter where it happens in the City of Winnipeg.

I’m lucky — I’m one of the lucky guys — who gets to work out in this beautiful part of town, but we’re not all that lucky. So our officers do have to be redeployed. And as a service we do our best to redeploy our officers where the need arises and where it’s most efficient and [inaudible] operational.

And that is something that the police service takes very seriously, because it’s never easy, pulling an officer out of one area and into another. I can tell you as a commander out here in District 6, I look forward to having my officers back, and I’m sure you all want them back as well.

I can’t tell you that they’ll be back tomorrow, I can tell you two of them came back today [laughter from crowd].

So the community support unit is something that all of you rely on whether you know it or not. In this room, you do rely on your community support unit very much and we as police officers rely on them quite extensively as well

We do have [inaudible] of officers. They’re the ones that come out into the community and talk with you, they’re the ones that deal with community complaints, and of course we don’t have enough. You know, of course not.

Will we ever have enough, probably not. That’s the nature of policing, and that’s the nature of the growth of our city — that’s the nature of the demographics of the city we live in.

As far as deployment goes, however, I do have to stress that the police service does take that very seriously having to redeploy officers from other areas of the city to deal with emergent criminal activity.

As far as the downtown safety plan and has one been developed for Osborne Village? Yes, one has been developed in Osborne Village. We developed it at the start of the summer. It was developed by two extremely talented officers out here in District 6, It obviously [inaudible] — has started to be put in place, when serious crime happened here in Winnipeg.

We had some gang issues, as you all know, our officers had to be redeployed and deal with some of that. A safety plan has been put in place, an action plan — we call it an action plan — that’s what we term it as — I guess it’s kind of, where you’re going — We call it an action plan here in District 6 because it helps us plan our day to be out in the community with you, have our officers out there and involved.

That action plan hasn’t fully come to fruition. Basically because of the circumstances and situations we here in Winnipeg find ourselves in everyday. I don’t know if that helps or not?

As far as the Cadets … is there an expansion of the Cadet program?

Again [inaudible], I’m not the expert. And everyone seems to think I’m the expert on the cadet program. I’m not. I run District 6. The Cadet program is the program that is just [inaudible] — it’s a growing program. It’s still growing within the City of Winnipeg.

More Cadets are being hired. And those Cadets are the eyes and ears of the Winnipeg Police Service. And they go out into the community — those are the young men and women that you see walking up and down the street. And I know for myself, I love seeing them out there, and I know you must love seeing them out there too, it gives you a sense of security that somebody’s out there watching on your behalf.

They have a very strict mandate. And they follow that mandate basically to the letter. Because they’re not peace officers.

A lot of young cadets are very energetic and are great young people. And a lot of the reason they join the Cadet program is they want to further their career in law-enforcement someday. So we hire cadets, we train the cadets, they get the experience and the next thing you know, we hire them as police officers and we have to hire more cadets.

So, the cadet program is expanding, and I can tell you I know there have been beats identified in the Osborne Village for the cadet program, but I can’t stand here today and give you a definitive answer as to when you can all look out your window and see a cadet walk by.  [Laughter from crowd]

I’d love to be able to tell you they’ll be there tonight when you get home. But that’s just simply not the case and I just hope you can understand that it’s resource-driven, that it’s efficiency driven and it’s operationally driven by the Winnipeg Police Service.

[Clapping]

Other questions included:

Why don’t police release mug shots of suspects upon their arrest (one man wanted to know if an encounter he had in his garage was with Brandon Sutyla, the suspected serial arsonist police have charged with 18 of the Fort Rouge fires)

Another woman asked why we have a helicopter but police keep talking about having not enough bodies to service neighbourhoods (Gerbasi handled this, assuring her she tells WPS Chief Keith McCaskill her concerns every time she sees him).

At this point, I was on my way out the door when a young man got up and asked the panel (but really, the police representatives) a question along the lines of: ‘You tell us you don’t have enough. What can we do to see that you get what you need?

The mic was passed to MLA Jennifer Howard, who spoke of “investments” made in policing by the province — but I had to write to deadline so I had to leave.

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Policing, (internal) politics and public policy

(Arne Peltz is the arbitrator overseeing a police Sergeant's labour dispute)
News flash: The Winnipeg Police Service — with roughly 2,000 employees and multiple divisions, mandates and priorities — is a large bureaucratic work environment that experiences human-resource headaches, policy-wonkery and management-employee conflicts.

Anyone else find the above statement a bit of a truism?

Because, at the end of the day, that’s really what’s being revealed at a Manitoba Labour Board hearing into a dispute between Sgt. James Jewell and WPS management over the so-called “1+1+1” transfer policy brought in a couple of years ago (see footnote).

Jewell’s stated concern — up until recently a supervising officer in the homicide unit — is that a policy of transferring people out of the “high-stakes” unit after a maximum of three years doesn’t meet the needs the complex cases require.

He feels he’s been unfairly punished by being transferred out of the unit for taking his concerns over the heads of his supervisors to the police brass.

His supervisors deny this is the case.

Anyone who has seen a homicide cop undergo cross-examination in a murder trial will understand: Jewell’s point is sound. You have to know your stuff or risk getting torn to shreds.

Some (but not all) homicide cases are complex and require focus, dedication and — as Jewell asserts — experience in homicide investigation to investigate and prosecute successfully.

His superiors suggest that’s not necessarily the case.

“To get good at homicide, you’ve got to know homicide, correct?,” Jewell’s lawyer, Keith LaBossiere asked Staff Sgt. Mike Stephens on Friday.

“I don’t draw the parallel, I’m sorry,” Stephens replied.

I won’t go into much greater detail about the Labour Board hearing so far, as it’s really Mike McIntyre and the Free Press’ baby (Links here, here, here and here).

I attended yesterday afternoon strictly out of interest as a private citizen (but reserved the right to blog on what I took away from it).

I wrote about the transfer policy for the Free Press in 2009, when the service was drafting it.

Much of what’s been revealed at the current hearing echoes concerns raised by the police union (actually a bargaining association) at the time.

But setting aside the stated concerns about the policy  for just a sec, there is another side to it.

My limited understanding of the need for the term limits (from the executive’s perspective) was that it was to ensure front-line, street level operations and officers have veteran guidance as new officers come on to the force and do their mandatory general patrol time.

From a core public-safety position, that seems and sounds reasonable.

But at issue really here is how, (as stated above), there’s a steep learning curve for murder police, and it’s not much of a leap to believe having them come and go from the unit too quickly can reduce institutional knowledge and case continuity as well as the mentoring of new investigators. That can be said to have a negative influence on the goal: public safety and enforcement of the law. Nobody wants murderers walking the streets.

A thought experiment: Imagine if the Free Press decided to move McIntyre out of the courthouse and put a GA reporter (not an inexperienced one, but one lacking systemic knowledge) there. There’s no doubt that over time, the newbie would ‘get it,’ but you hire a McIntyre, see his skills and keep him there for a reason. Simply put: He’s learned the ropes, produces original stuff and it just seemingly wouldn’t make sense to lose his experience in that genre in a high-stakes media landscape.

[UPDATE, Monday July 11: After thinking about this further, a glaring omission struck me that I should have mentioned — The key difference is that reporters don’t solve serious violent crimes, nor typically risk their lives. There are naturally rare exceptions, but…]

But — a conjunction which segues into the point I wish to make: like it or lump it, there’s a caveat when you don’t sign your own paycheques.

Management reserves the right to…

There’s two competing sides that I can articulate at this time: One faction says the WPS brass is hampering its core public-safety goal through its own internal policy. The other suggests new direction is needed; that other priorities — AKA building for the future — are at play here, that like any corporation or bureaucracy, those who run it have to have the discretion to make changes as they see fit.

In other words, a rock and a hard place. For all involved. No matter how this plays out, it’s hard to say if there’s a way of seeing if there will be a clear “winner” or “loser.”

Naturally, at issue in Jewell’s case is whether he was treated fairly in the circumstances.

A final note:

I’d suspect there’s an uneasy feeling on the fifth floor of the PSB given the details about the internal operations of homicide and HR activities being revealed at the MLB hearing.

For years, the force has taken great lengths to try and ensure the internal operations of the WPS stay on the down-low, that its public messaging stays focused. And yes, that access to such internal information often be denied.

But what we’ve seen over the last week is that there’s been no great calamity because the public got a glimpse of how the quote-unquote elite homicide unit operates, that there’s fraction and friction and internal conflict and politics at play.

In my personal view, it has served as a reminder that the cop you see on the street, the one that may be your neighbour or fishing buddy, faces the same workplace frustrations as virtually all citizens who work for someone else do.

In effect, it’s been terribly humanizing.

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Footnote:

In Division 40 – WPS policy states there are maximum assignment lengths of:

Constable — three years (one year guaranteed and each of the other two years reviewable each year)

Det. Sergeants — four years maximum.

Most if not all, when assigned to the division, stay for the maximum allotment without being transferred out at the direction of the management.