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.
“I hear you when you say your family’s broken … what this has done to you.“ — Commissioner Ted Hughes
There was absolutely no need for the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry staff to put Karl McKay’s sons on the witness stand today.
And even having his ex-wife (a McKay domestic-abuse survivor) testifying today was questionable, save for the fact she says she notified Chid and Family Services of potential abuse to Phoenix long before the McKay-Kematch house of cards coming down on top of them in March 2006.
For the inquiry’s sake, she needed to be questioned on this point. That’s fair game.
But the fact there were few cross-examination questions for the McKay “boys” from non-inquiry lawyers [In fact not a single query for child the elder] is telling.
This is just my respectful opinion: There was virtually nothing McKay’s sons had to offer this inquiry which couldn’t have been tendered through affidavit evidence, sparing them the stress of reliving in public the horror they’ve experienced and already testified to in court in 2008.
This became clear to me pretty quickly. These are two now-young adult men who’ve been rocked to the core by what they’ve been forced to live through, through no fault of their own.
And the one likely the most directly affected, McKay son the younger — the eyewitness to a lot of the horror Phoenix went through in a supposedly “tight-knit” Fisher River community which apparently failed to notice she was even around — was clearly terrified by the prospect of being pilloried in the public eye for not speaking up sooner about what he saw than he did.
“Can I make a statement,” the 20-year-old asked at the conclusion of his hour-long direct examination by commission counsel.
Yes, said Commissioner Hughes. The young man had a message for the media in the room — of which there was more than has been usual.
Can I ask you reporters – don’t try to make me sound like the baddest guy on earth?
I read the paper, you guys make it sound bad – you guys make it sound horrible. I couldn’t help it, man.
That’s like the only thing I ask — just don’t make it sound like I’m really bad and terrible, Because I already feel bad. Now that I’m older I feel, like, so terrible and it’s bad enough that you guys are bringing this all back to me and I got all these little memories flashing in my head.
I just want to forget all that.
And without a doubt, we should be doing everything we can to help these young men get past this. Commissioner Hughes even graciously pledged to McKay’s ex to help as much as he could.
What child the younger witnessed basically ruined his life, he said.
“Where do I start?,” he asked when lead commission lawyer Sherri Walsh queried how the Phoenix incident has affected him:
“I’m a pretty fucked up person now. … used to be a good kid … all of it’s gone like that (he snaps his fingers a few times).” He said he turned to drugs, booze and crime to “block out what I seen.” “(I’m) trying to get my life back together,” he told Hughes. “(It) made me a terrible person,” he said.
His brother’s no different: “I think it made me more like my dad, because I get — when I rage, I can do some damage,” he said.
They were just kids when Phoenix died. Not paid social-work professionals or community vanguards.
Mere children who came from not very much and now saddled forever with the burden of what their odious father did.
The younger son won’t even call him his father, saying he prefers “Wesley” or “Karl.”
If there was one thing their testimony did accomplish, it was to further cement for commissioner Hughes the culture of fear they, and others in their positions, lived in.
Fear of Karl McKay, their violent and vengeful father (their dad) — and what he might do if they ratted on him.
Fear of the child-welfare system [both boys were apparently scared when Intertribal CFS workers turned up to ‘rescue’ them in July 2005]
Fear of the media and public scorn — of being cast as villains in this horrific tale.
It’s been many torturous weeks since Rohan Stephenson testified at this now-$10-million inquiry.
But it was his words that really gave the most insight into what the major problem was when it comes to considering Phoenix’s case.
“So I was a liar, and (CFS) were incompetent and 15,000 other circumstances all came together and now Phoenix is dead,” he said Dec. 6.
The more I reflect on this, the more simple dissecting Phoenix’s pathetic voyage through ‘the system’ becomes. It really boils down to this:
CFS can’t do its job if people won’t come forward with information, for whatever reasons — including their fear of ‘the system.’
At the same time, when CFS was given information about Phoenix, it failed to rate much attention or urgency until it was too late.
Putting McKay’s sons on the stand today, in my humble opinion, takes us really no further in solving this dichotomy.
We knew all along what they had to say, and by now, we probably instinctively know what it is we’re really confronting here.
We’re no further along today as a result of McKay’s sons’ testimony.
Trying to figure out how Phoenix Sinclair managed to slip through the cracks of Manitoba’s child-welfare system and wind up murdered by a mother who was a walking red flag for trouble?
It’s actually very simple, really.
But, like most simple things, it’s incredibly complex and nuanced.
As we’ve seen in the last few months, Child and Family Services is an incredibly complex beast.
How it does things is complex. The problems it contends with are more complex than CFS is.
I worked with a woman once in another field before becoming a reporter. She was very sweet and well-meaning.
But under stress, she was an absolute nightmare. Under stress, her priority was to get whatever tasks she had to accomplish out of her face as quickly as possible, no matter if they were done appropriately or with due care or attention or not.
I chalked it up then, as I do now, to human nature. That’s just how she responded to having multiple — and sometimes competing objectives to fill — and had no time to accomplish them and make everyone happy.
Clients would leave nonplussed, but to my colleague, it was all good — she felt as if she did her job.
Fast forward to today, when the last CFS supervisor to eyeball Phoenix Sinclair’s case spent an agonizing second day on the witness stand, called to account for a case she had no real reason to give too much attention to in March 2005, for reasons explained below.
The final protection file opening and subsequent closing for Phoenix appeared doomed from the start to not produce any meaningful intervention by CFS.
And in hindsight, we can judge and condemn all we want, but the reality is, taken in the context of the CFS crisis-response system which existed back then, Phoenix’s case likely got more attention from the system than it might have otherwise, strange as that is to suggest given the outcome, I know.
Let’s start from the top:
That March, CRU took it’s usual hefty number of referral calls — 1,311 — following a February where there were 1,342, which resulted in just a handful of the available CRU field workers doing 529 investigations over the 20 or so business days available to them.
At that time, the whole “walk of shame” issue (the process of the Intake Unit — the squad which was supposed to take files from CRU where follow up was needed — was rejecting files and sending them back down despite policy indicating that wasn’t to happen.)
The math worked out today laid bare the grim fact that workers doing field calls — workers like Richard Buchkowsi, Christopher Zalevich and Bill Leskiw — were basically given 1-1.5 hours to work on each of the five new files they would be handed each day.
Nobody appeared to have any training in the provincial standards, and there also appeared to be several schools of thought on which standards actually applied at the time. There were older ones and newish “draft” ones floating around. In the absence of that, Faria says “best practice” was the standard — trying to meet “optimal outcomes” for kids given the myriad of challenges her unit faced.
And that’s just a hint of the structural/internal stuff going on, just months before Winnipeg CFS went “live” under devolution (although the exact impact this sea change had on the CRU/Intake procedure has yet to be fleshed out in full).
Now, moving to the actual work on Phoenix’s case:
March 5 (a Saturday): The call comes in to the after-hours unit (AHU). A CFS foster parent gives second-hand information alleging Phoenix was being abused and possibly locked in a room by Samantha Kematch. The source who made the call to AHU suggests she was met with argument after refusing to divulge who was giving the information. She also disputed whether call-taker Jacki Davidson captured the full spirit of their conversation.
In any event, the investigation ball then got rolling with these eight sentences crafted by Davidson:
“Spoke to an ex foster child today. She refused to provide me with the person’s name. This person told (the source) that she suspects that Samantha Kematch is abusing her daughter Phoenix… (source) does not have any details as to what this alleged abuse might be. Also this person suspects that Samantha may be locking Phoenix in her bedroom. I explained that we need to speak directly to (the informant), but despite being an agency foster home she refused to disclose the name …. does not have an address or phone number for Samantha other that she lives in apartment one beside the Maryland hotel. I explained that without an address we will be unable to follow up. The last address on CFSIS is on McGee. For consideration by CRU.”
Davidson also cut-and-pasted a file history on Kematch and the case (a practice, no surprise, which is now forbidden). The history missing key information from January 2004 and December 2004 past interventions — One of them possibly because of a computer glitch. It also contains no mention of ‘Wes McKay’ for whomever gets the file to follow up on.
The file Davidson worked up is also, for some unknown reason, missing a routine “Safety Assessment” form which would tell the CRU worker how quickly they should respond.
The file sits until Monday morning, when supervisor Diana Verrier passes it off to worker Richard Buchkowski. Buchkowski doesn’t hesitate to act, believing the case to be a “high priority” to look into. He gets right on it, the file shows.
He calls welfare, which for some reason has no record of the family. His next call is the Winnipeg School Division, which nets him an address. He then proceeds to go to Kematch’s apartment twice that day but couldn’t get in. (see Sunday’s blog).
He goes back to the office and recommends the file — now 48 hours old and reaching the expected shelf-life of files in CRU — be passed up the chain to intake for them to look into. That’s their job — and it seemed to work just fine in January 2004 and January-February 2003 when intake workers followed up.
Intake, however, rejected it. Nobody knows why — or at least they’re not saying — but heavy workload is clearly an influence.
The same day Buchkowski and Verrier say the file should go upstairs, Diva Faria gets the file back and hands it off to Zalevich near the end of his day. It’s unclear why, but it sits for another day before he heads out to Kematch’s home with Leskiw.
One thing was clear, and Faria admitted it freely: This was a child-protection investigation.
Faria said in her testimony she had the following expectations of workers as their boss (not an exclusive list):
She expected Zalevich, the primary, to review any available information on Kematch and Steve Sinclair’s cases which was available to him on the computer (he doesn’t have appeared to). Leskiw, she said, was a more experienced worker who she expected would step in and “redirect” Zalevich if he missed something important (Leskiw denies he was really there for anything but to preserve safety in case things got volatile or an apprehension was warranted). Faria expected workers to prepare their own case histories, she testified. (Zalevich worked off the incomplete one as written by Davidson. Leskiw says he knew nothing of the case).
As already made apparent in several reports, the workers show up and Kematch won’t let them in. They instead meet with her outside her door in her building’s tiny hallway so they can speak privately. She effectively blows off any abuse, admits to having a lock on her door and they caution her about it. She shows off her healthy baby and declines services. They leave her a card.
Zalevich and Leskiw return to the office. Zalevich says he and Faria discussed the case and she said it could be closed despite the fact Phoenix wasn’t seen by him. She can’t recall any discussion or testify to anything beyond what’s in the file notes.
Nevertheless, as we see, Zalevich typed up his file and recommendation to close it, saying, “workers did not note any protection concerns“.
Faria signs it and the file is closed.
There’s huge questions which were left hanging.
The most important of them being: How does it compute that there’s an abuse allegation and workers left without seeing the child and then state there’s no child-protection concerns?
The workers didn’t go in the apartment or see Phoenix’s living environment or examine the lock on the door, so how can there be a finding they noted no protection concerns? Phoenix, it can’t be understated, was four years old and not in school at this time.
Why does it matter that they “did not note” any protection concerns? Is the question to be asked not: What efforts were made to substantiate or disprove the allegations?
And as a supervisor, what efforts did Faria make to look the file over, to question what work that been done? She testified she would have been trying to ensure workers were following “best practice.”
“Yes, if it’s achievable based on the organizational and systemic challenges,” she said.
And, like it or lump it, those challenges were real within CFS.
And there was work done on the file — done by a unit that shouldn’t have really had it in the first place.
In many ways I think what Faria was trying to say in a lot of her answers was that the system, at the time, was engineering paths to failure.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that it was her oversight on the file which is why she was in the witness chair answering questions.
But it was really one of the last queries — from her own lawyer, Kris Saxberg — which, to me, underscored what’s really going on here:
“I took down (from your earlier evidence) — you indicated if you were not able to determine there were child-protection concerns then you would advance the file (up to Intake). Is ‘not able’ to identify child protection concern similar or different than not having child-protection concerns?”
“If you’re not able, you don’t have any child-protection concerns,” Faria replied.
So there you have it: In the odd logic of CFS circa 2000-2005, you can’t be expected to find what you’re not looking for.
On the flip side, Faria, like Zalevich, shouldn’t be blamed for being put in a situation where failure seems like an inevitable outcome.
Intake should have taken the file. I’m hoping we find more about why they didn’t.
Will add more of the CRU statistics disclosures as they are posted by the commission. I can say that from what we’ve seen, referrals stay consistently above the 1,000/month as time goes on.
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.
Now: here’s what the worker present — Laura Forrest had to say in her testimony about McKay’s appearance in court that day:
“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:
“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.
Just for the heck of it, here’s a letter Probation Services wrote to CFS in 1999 about McKay.
“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” — Milton Friedman
A few weeks back, prior to the resumption of testimony in the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry, the University of Manitoba’s law school held a morning-long public session on public inquiries and their genesis, largely looking at the Sophonow inquiry held many years ago.
Among the four speakers was former deputy Attorney General Bruce MacFarlane.
As I’ve been pondering the inquiry at length, an off-hand comment MacFarlane made keeps coming back to me.
The thing about public inquiries when you’re in government, MacFarlane said, is you never know what you’re going to get.
His words resonate today, because in the drab downtown Winnipeg convention room where Ted Hughes presides over the increasingly contentious and costly proceedings into the role CFS played in Phoenix’s life up until shortly before her 2005 murder, we’re hearing things which, seen in the right light, could shake our Manitoba reality to its core.
And that may not be a bad thing — in fact, this examination of an exceedingly secretive system might ultimately be just what the ER doctor ordered.
But I suspect confronting what needs to be confronted will be anything but easy.
Let’s start with a fairly well-accepted premise about political power and its legitimacy: A government and the systems it uses to exercise its power (policing, taxation and, yes, child-protection for example) are essentially rendered toothless and ineffective if the citizens those systems serve don’t ‘buy into’ them and accept their actions as proper, justifiable and fair.
(To put it more concretely, even the most garden variety city cop reporter will tell you the ‘f**k the police, f**k the courts’ sentiment in Manitoba is not only prevalent but has grown considerably in the last 20 years. Disrespect for police authority and the justice system is high.)
So, let’s recap just a few salient truths we’ve heard so far about Phoenix and her circumstances, and some of the circumstances of CFS from 2000-2004.
Mom and dad, both young and disadvantaged, were each products of the CFS system.
Phoenix was taken into the custody of CFS same child-welfare system at birth.
Dad was considered a “passive resistant” CFS client who wanted to raise Phoenix himself in order to spare her his own childhood experiences of the system.
When dad was offered CFS services in a time of heavy grief, he rejected them for ones he could access from and in his own community.
The CFS system set rules and goals (case plans) for her parents to reclaim Phoenix, but didn’t follow them to the letter.
CFS committed itself to following up with the family, but couldn’t seem to do it in a uniform or consistent manner.
There was confusion of whether the CFS client was Phoenix, her mom, her dad, both or all three at the same time.
The family lived in a severely challenged community where the need for CFS services was always stretched thin.
The personal ‘values’ workers brought to cases directly influenced important aspects of it, including assessments of risk children faced.
Any actions taken by the CFS system’s actors (largely based on presenting circumstances) were hemmed in by legislation requiring that families and kids were to be dealt with in the “least intrusive” manner possible.
CFS agents — namely social workers — were rebuffed, misdirected or outright lied to in many of their efforts to look out for Phoenix when she was not in care (though at the same time, CFS appeared to do little to verify much of the information it was receiving.)
We could take apart and debate and analyze each and every one of the above.
But for today, anyways, lets just start by looking at the concept of ‘values.’
Consider his clearly stated perspective from his past brushes with the system:
“I was coming from a marginalized group of society: low income, partying lifestyle, general distrust of police and the establishment. … “I had no positive experience with police in my youth certainly, or with CFS. I had only known CFS taking children away. Not fixing families only breaking them.”
Also consider another example, the mistrust and resistance to the agency implied in Steve Sinclair’s statement to social worker Laura Forrest after she came knocking on his door in early 2003. He refused to tell her where Phoenix was.
“Then she would have went down there and got up all in their face. I knew she was safe. That’s all that mattered to me. They would have made a different judgment call in their eyes, right?”
“We’ll see about that,” was Sinclair’s resistant reply to Forrest when she told him she’d return and had to see the little girl.
What the above directly implies is the values and work the CFS system performs clashed with those of its clients. Not all of them, for sure, but likely many.
Also interesting is how in Stephenson’s case, CFS and police are linked as being similar entities — as illegitimate actors of the state whose interference is perceived as an intrusive threat and not a benefit, based on past experiences.
But the quandary is very clear: What is CFS to do if the heart of its work — the children and families it’s mandated to serve — don’t believe in what you’re doing and don’t support your right to do it?
How does the system, looking forward, get past the entrenched ‘us versus them’ mentality? Was this also a goal of the devolution process?
It’s a fundamental, if not foundational question. One Hughes will have to investigate if he’s going to recommend realistic ways to better protect children.
In Phoenix’s lifetime anyways, CFS clearly appeared to be a mess.
And today, we’re told the need for CFS has grown, not abated.
The government — where the buck ultimately stops regardless of the bureaucratic CFS authorities system it uses to deflect that reality — has and will likely continue to throw millions of dollars, discretion-regulating technology and staffers at the system.
That ‘solution’ will continue, I suspect, until the point we’re willing to do what may seem impossible: Confront our issues and prejudices, settle long-standing scores we have with each other and move past them already. Find a better way.
But to reiterate where we started off: We don’t know what we’re gonna get.
The death of any child, no matter the circumstances is horrible, and to see one murdered, simply unspeakable and intolerable. We can all agree to that.
From that baseline, we have our work cut out for us.
That’s clear, and will become even more so in the hard days ahead.
“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.
Another illuminating moment today at the inquiry into how Phoenix Sinclair fell through the cracks of our provincial child-protection system.
It had to do with the information social workers rely on when assessing the urgency — some may describe that as ‘risk’ — when responding to a case; specifically, how soon Phoenix needed the system’s attention.
I’ve written before about social worker Laura Forrest being lauded in at least one internal review after Phoenix’s death (as well as by CFS employees on the witness stand) regarding her June 2003 case summary, which finally put together all available information about the case and the concerning backgrounds of her parents.
Forrest saw that, all things considered, her case was high risk and that CFS couldn’t go away from her life.
Her risk assessment would ultimately be deemed an “opinion” by subsequent workers and tossed aside to allow Steve Sinclair a fresh start with CFS and a new worker after Phoenix was taken from him in June 2003.
By the time Sinclair regained custody of her on Oct. 2, 2003, colleague and case worker Stan Williams’s closing summary of the case looked starkly different than Forrest’s.
I won’t reprint Forrest’s in its entirety, it’s pages long and extremely deep (it can be found here) Below, however, is the final, but still lengthy section in her ‘Statement of Risk.’
“Steven and Samantha have clearly indicated their mistrust and unwillingness to be involved with a child welfare agency however they have not demonstrated a capacity and commitment to ensure their child’s wellbeing enough for the agency not to be involved. Unfortunately. because of their past involvement as wards of a child welfare agency they arc not receptive to services from the agency and they deny or minimize any Issues presented in an effort to keep the agency away from them. They would do anything, or nothing, to keep the agency at bay. It is this worker’s opinion that it is this attitude and disregard for the agency that has probably resulted in this agency’s previous termination of services, and not a lack of child welfare issues, If one looks back in previous recording the identified and unresolved problems are still very much present in the family’s current situation. The problems haven’t gone away, and now neither can the agency. The obvious struggle in commitment, questionable parenting capacity, along with an unstable home environment and substance abuse lssue(s), and lack of positive support system all lend to a situation that poses a high level of risk to this child, for maltreatment and / or placement in agency care. Phoenix Is in agency care no(w) and it would probably not be in her best interests to be returned to either parent at this time or until they can show something to indicate that they can and will be more responsible and protective other.”
Now, for the sake of contrast, here’s Stan Williams’s final word on the case, under the “Unresolved Problems‘ section. It was authored around the time Phoenix was allowed by CFS to go back to dad unconditionally without having taken any programming for his alcohol problem.
“Mr. Sinclair requested his child stay in care until he felt strong enough to care for her again. He has had his time out and will parent Phoenix starting Oct. 2, 2003. He has done no programming and as such is prone to an unhealthy way of managing stresses in his life. He is aware of the need to arrange for appropriate alternative caregivers when he feels the need for a break or time out for respite.”
It goes without saying there’s a massive difference between the tone, content and, I submit — the intent of the two statements, prepared mere months apart by different social workers with apparently different mindsets.
But the net effect of this apparent discretionary revisionism was revealed today in relation to how another social worker, Lisa Conlin (and, her supervisor) started off their investigation into subsequent allegations Phoenix could be at risk in January 2004.
Conlin says she didn’t or can’t remember looking at past Kematch or Sinclair files the agency had on record when the file came to her on Jan. 20, 2004.
Did you look up either of the parents’ information on CFSIS (the internal computer system)?, commission counsel Sherri Walsh asked.
“Well, I believe I for sure would have looked at his (inaudible) that was open to me,” she said.
At Steve Sinclair’s?
“Steve Sinclair’s. That would be my typical practice,” she said.
And what would you have looked at? What information would you have looked at?
“The last closing summary,” Conlin replied.
So in this case, that’s the one at November 2003 (The Williams closing summary, referenced above.)? What about the one immediately before that — still in Mr. Sinclair’s file, from March 2002 — would you have looked at that one as well?
“I don’t specifically recall that one.”
You don’t recall looking at that one?
Was it your practice, typically, just to look at the most recent file closing?
“Typically, because, what happens is the latest worker would have summarized already the previous closing summary — so you get a recent summary in the most recent closing. Just like when the intake initially comes to me from the Crisis Response Unit, there’s a summary … in there.” (To be fair, there was also a short ‘cut and pasted’ recounting of the family’s history and CFS involvement in that summary).
So if we look at the summary you would have reviewed … (Nov. 13, 2003, the Williams summary) under the heading ‘unresolved problems’ (Walsh reads the section, listed above, aloud to her)
“I don’t recall exactly when I looked at this,” she says. “It’s just something (as a matter of practice) I would have done,” said Conlin.
As you can clearly see, there’s a huge discrepancy in content and tone between the Forrest and Williams case summaries.
One (Forrest’s) darkly and deeply warns of the risk Phoenix was in and — by my reading — essentially urges the agency to stay involved in the little girl’s life.
The other, Williams’ laconic five-sentence-long summary essentially — to me — suggests almost the polar opposite – that the agency take a hands-off approach for the young dad who just needed a time out from parenting. (as if that wasn’t a warning sign in itself).
Problem is, when problems crept up again a few months later, Conlin, a busy social worker handling short-term child-protection intervention calls in the city’s most challenged area — likely only had so much time to delve into the file. Who knows. Maybe she just didn’t see the need to look further given the presenting child-welfare issues in the case she was to look into.
But it’s clear to me, at least, that it’s certainly more likely a social worker’s guard would have been raised significantly more if Forrest’s case summary had remained the one at the top of the pile.
To say it’s disheartening hearing the evidence that’s coming out at the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry would be beyond an understatement.
But among the litany of facts painting the picture of major systemic breakdown — a portrait of ignominy becoming clearer each passing day — there are moments of fascinating clarity.
One of them came today, in the testimony of veteran CFS caseworker Laura Forrest, who, like many of her colleagues, was asked towards the end of her time on the stand to comment on the nature of the CFS system in general and improvements which could be made to it to better protect Manitoba kids.
Forrest handled Phoenix’s case for a few months, and despite her failure to physically see and visit the child in following up what was considered to be a low-risk potential maltreatment claim, it was Forrest who finally put together all the available information to determine the little girl’s background equalled nothing less than a high-risk situation.
And her parents’ negative attitude and disregard for CFS and its work was a huge factor in her finding, which a review noted was largely ignored a few weeks after she came to this conclusion.
Fast forward to today, and Forrest is no longer an intake worker with CFS, handling crises and complex cases as they poured in by the bucketsful.
She now works delivering services to families as a case worker — a step removed from the process of initial contact and assessment of cases by CFS. (EDIT: she’s actually doing foster-care placements, but left intake in 2009 to move to a family service position with CFS till recently).
Off the top, Forrest readily admitted her workload was high — if not huge — in her time in intake, and that continued till she left that unit in 2009. By then, several reviews of Phoenix’s case had been done, and changes implemented by officials to try and ensure no similar situation ever happened again.
“My practice was to do the best I could with what I had,” she said.
Forrest says she was never consulted or interviewed about any of the reviews that were done or findings made, something she says she would have liked to have seen happen just because the investigations analyzed her work. It also may have been educational for her, she said.
“What’s the answer to workload issues?,” Commission lawyer Sherri Walsh asked her today — toward the end of Forrest’s lengthy testimony.
She paused a while before speaking.
“I guess, it’s a big answer. Because it’s not as simple as telling a system, ‘these are all these standards you should be following and that will take care of everything. We deal with really complex family situations. And depending on where they’re coming from, lack of community resources, increased issues with respect to addictions, mental health, which makes things much more complicated – families placing their children into care at much more, much higher numbers.
The system can try and change as much as it can sometimes, but if everything else around, in our community is also escalating in terms of their needs and their problems that they’re trying to deal with, I don’t know how we can keep up, to be honest.”
“In my experience — over 20 years — things have changed. It’s not easier to do my job.
Not withstanding changes in the system?
“Yeah. I mean, I think that we all try to do the very best that we can, whether people can believe that or not. We have a lot of hope, we have a lot of belief that people can make changes, that families can make changes. Sometimes I find if I didn’t have those, that would be very very difficult, because sometimes that’s all you have with a family.
So, is very simply one answer to the workload concerns reducing the need? Prevention?
“Well, prevention would be helpful. So if you could look at some prevention programs that could be in place even within [the] system, we had those — we had a couple of them — and they were helpful in terms of dealing with families that had teenagers out of control. But those programs were changed and something else came about as a result of that. So I think that it would be helpful if we found practical interventions that would actually really, adequately meet family needs in a realistic fashion.
We can tell them what we think we need them to do, but if they can’t do it because they don’t have enough food, they don’t — they’re struggling maintaining the three or four or two kids in their home because they’re a single parent and they don’t have a lot of resources — I think we have to be fair and mindful that these are people that are working hard to do the best they can.
We have to come up with better solutions as to what we can offer them for intervention. So that could be helpful — some practical intervention, some more practical and more available resources. I always hope for that and I know other people do. And I know the community resources try as much as they can as well with what they have. But, you know, to say that one system has to make all the change and that will take care of everything and no child will be harmed again — I don’t know if that’s going to happen by just looking at one system.
You say that protecting children can’t just be put on the shoulders of the child-welfare system.
“We have that burden. But it would be helpful if we had other supports and resources. Not for us, but for the families.
We talked about community resources and addressing issues of poverty, employment, education, child care — those are all things that would help, ultimately, with workload?
“Yeah. These are all the things that our families struggle with and we have to try and help them overcome those. Sometimes it’s very difficult.
Was there anything about (Phoenix’s family’s) circumstances, either in terms of their factual circumstances or the nature of services that were being delivered by the agency that stood out in your mind as compared to other families that you were working with?
“This family situation was fairly similar to many families I had dealt with. Whether it was single parent dealing with addictions issues, conflict with the other parent, struggling to manage in child care, relying on other family members. It wasn’t unique in itself. There are certain things about it that make them different but often times I dealt with families that struggled with poverty … parenting … addictions … mental health. It was more common than not.