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.

Phoenix Inquiry: Where did today take us?

(Phoenix Sinclair)
(Phoenix Sinclair)

The stage was set. The media turned up in droves.

And for once, today there appeared to be more than a single public observer taking in what’s likely to become the most expensive (and I’d contend, expansive) public examination of a huge and hush-hush government department in Manitoba history.

Despite the anticipation, Steve Sinclair’s testimony at the inquiry into the role Child and Family Services played in his daughter’s short life didn’t inch us any closer to discovering anything truly on point.

Let me be clear: As previously stated, I have lot of respect for Mr. Sinclair. I feel horribly for him and his loss(es).

The grief he must deal with I can’t pretend to imagine. And I would never, ever, begrudge him a venue to say what’s on his mind as it relates to Phoenix. Ever.

“I appreciate the chance to speak,” he told Commissioner Hughes after being dismissed from the witness stand.

I have no doubt he did. And, for the record, I’m glad he did.

But I’m wracking my brain to figure how what Sinclair told us fits into the picture the first phase of this inquiry is supposed to be painting.

That is: to help us unravel the actions and inactions of CFS as they related to Phoenix before she wound up back in her mother’s care, and somehow wound up lonely, abused and murdered on a tiny  Manitoba reserve.

It was interesting to note Sinclair’s observations about Samantha Kematch, how she didn’t want to talk about her first-born son and he didn’t want to pry. It was heartbreaking to hear his recollections of Phoenix as he visited with her in a CFS office as a baby and what she was like in his home at age three. It was concerning to see the effect his second daughter’s death clearly had on him.

I did find it extremely important Sinclair discussed what happened and his apparent confusion when he agreed to let Kematch take Phoenix for a few hours only to never see her again, and to also get a little more clarification on how Phoenix wound up at HSC with a foreign object in her nose in early 2003.

And it was also interesting to hear from Sinclair’s own lips the underpinnings of why CFS concluded  he was a “passive resistant” client.

But again, such things appeared to me to be ‘story’ when it’s ‘process’ we’re jousting with: the ‘story’ of a gigantic government child-protection system and how it operates.

Sinclair’s first-person version of events and clarifications of circumstances weren’t written up in any CFS report we’ve seen yet — a report to be used as information by which agency decisions were made during his daughter’s lifetime.

We should be focusing here on the systemic problems with Manitoba child-welfare and ‘process’ as they related to Phoenix’s case at the time, looking at the internal decisions CFS agents made based on the information CFS gathered.

As far as I can see today, Sinclair’s testimony — at this stage of the inquiry — didn’t help us answer or put into any much greater context the serious questions which have surfaced.

A scant few of those questions, simply rattled off from the top of my head, might include:

  • Why did Winnipeg CFS allow Kematch and Sinclair to have Phoenix back prior to her completing a psychological assessment/evaluation deemed vital at the time Phoenix was born?
  • Is it enough for a social worker and her supervisor to say because a child — one who had once been in CFS care — has been seen quickly by an ER doctor, that that constitutes in any way a safety assessment as to what risk she may be in?
  • Why was Sinclair allowed by CFS to unconditionally reclaim Phoenix seven weeks before her court-sanctioned period in custody (it was the shortest order the law allowed) ended? Allowed to take her back despite he took no programming to deal with the drinking issue that was deemed so risky for Phoenix she needed to be brought into care?
  • When, in early 2004, it appeared Sinclair (described by CFS as her ‘primary caregiver’) was totally AWOL and Kematch was mysteriously caring for Phoenix at times, was the little girl allowed to live at her godparents without any long-term state-sanctioned plan for her care and well-being? And no legal guardianship order being in effect?
  • Why was one worker’s comprehensive risk assessment of the family’s case simply tossed out by another worker to start “fresh?”
  • Where are all the supervisory notes?

What we’re trying to answer here, I thought, was, how did the provincial child-welfare system — not her dad — fail Phoenix?

I don’t recall Sinclair being asked many questions about what he’d have liked to see CFS do in his case, what solutions he might have as a person involved in a system he likely loathes. In fact, I can’t say I heard many tough questions asked of him at all.

His evidence may have been more helpful in the inquiry’s upcoming third phase, which will look broadly at societal conditions such as poverty; how they may have factored into Phoenix’s death.

Maybe I’m just not seeing it — but I don’t see how Sinclair’s evidence put us any closer to what we’re trying to get at today.

If you can help me out, fire away in the comment section.

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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.