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100 still to testify at Phoenix inquiry

Probe into tot's life resumes

Phoenix Sinclair: abused and murdered

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Phoenix Sinclair: abused and murdered (FAMILY PHOTO)

THE life and death of a five-year-old in care goes back under the microscope today as the oft-delayed Phoenix Sinclair inquiry resumes.

Thirty witnesses have testified during 25 days since the public hearings began in September. With about 100 more witnesses to go, the hearings are expected to run until May.

The inquiry, with its dramatic proceedings, is exposing problems with a society and a system in which a little girl was forgotten, then slain.

Phoenix was killed in 2005, three months after her child-welfare file was closed. Her body was buried in a dump at Fisher River First Nation for nine months before authorities realized she was missing. Her mother and stepfather were convicted of first-degree murder in her death in 2008.

In March 2011, the province ordered a public inquiry into the child welfare services provided or not provided, into her and her family, any other circumstances directly related to Phoenix's death and into why it went undiscovered for several months.

The process was delayed by pre-hearing motions on publication bans. The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union, for example, fought to shield the identity of social workers and lost.

When the public hearings finally got underway in September, they halted on the third day because of another court challenge. Several child welfare authorities fought the decision by inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes to give them only summaries of the commission's pre-inquiry interviews with the 140 or so witnesses slated to testify. They asked the Manitoba Court of Appeal to grant them the full transcripts, which could have delayed the inquiry for weeks or months. The court ruled the full witness interview transcripts did not have to be disclosed.

When the inquiry resumed Nov. 14, Hughes said it was on track to be the most expensive public inquiry in Manitoba history.

Before the inquiry even began, Darlene MacDonald, Manitoba's children's advocate, said in June she was concerned about the "huge" amount of money being spent on it. MacDonald said the $4.7 million spent on the inquiry for that fiscal year alone might be better spent improving services.

Some of her employees at the children's advocate branch who used to work for Child and Family Services when Phoenix was in their care have testified about their role at that time.

One of them, advocacy officer Doug Ingram, was a CFS supervisor in 2004 when the file on Phoenix was closed. He said he didn't recall taking any notes when he met with the worker he supervised on the case. If he did, Ingram said they would have been shredded. Other CFS supervisors have testified they took case notes and kept them in a binder in their office. None of those supervisors' notes has been found.

Missing notes and a lack of public trust in CFS have been recurring themes at the inquiry.

Phoenix's father, Steve Sinclair, was raised in care and testified he didn't want Phoenix to be placed in care and tried to keep the agency at a distance. The couple who cared the most for Phoenix and applied to become her foster parents said they, too, didn't want CFS coming around. Kim Edwards and Rohan Stephenson testified they were afraid Phoenix would end up in the system with strangers.

Had those who loved Phoenix seen the disturbing file on her mother, Samantha Kematch, or known she was "a psychopath," they wouldn't have let the child go with her in April 2004, Edwards testified earlier.

The inquiry has proceeded in chronological order. When it recessed on Dec. 19, it was up to the time Phoenix was four years old and her mother had registered her for nursery school in Winnipeg's inner city. Phoenix never showed up.

When the inquiry resumes today, Shelley Willox is expected to testify for the first time. She worked in the CFS crisis-response unit in 2004.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

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