A revolving door of social workers and supervisors had the file on Phoenix Sinclair before she was a year old. Most of them testifying at the inquiry into the death of the little girl in care can't recall the case from 12 years ago -- especially one social worker, who testified Tuesday she was juggling full-time university classes while working full time for Winnipeg Child and Family Services and commuting daily into the city from Brokenhead First Nation.
"I was a very busy person," Delores Chief-Abigosis said.
The provincial inquiry is trying to find out if and how the child welfare system failed Phoenix, who died in 2005 at the hands of her mother, Samantha Kematch and her boyfriend, Karl McKay. Chief-Abigosis hasn't been able to recall details of the case and can't say why there's no record of her having done work on the file from mid-November 2000, when she started working for CFS, and February 2001.
The former social worker at Brokenhead First Nation testified Monday her caseload doubled when she took the job with Winnipeg CFS, 82 kilometres away. On top of that, she said Tuesday, she was attending university full time and her CFS supervisor knew it.
Among the 20 or so cases she was assigned when she started was the Phoenix Sinclair file. Two months earlier, her parents, Kematch and Steve Sinclair, were reunited with the baby apprehended at birth in April 2000. When the baby was returned to them on Sept. 5, 2000, it was with conditions set out in a six-month service agreement. If they didn't comply, it said, they'd risk losing Phoenix to care once more. There were six conditions, including meeting with their CFS worker regularly and having an in-home support worker coach them on parenting and life skills.
Chief-Abigosis didn't visit Phoenix and her family until February 2001 -- nearly three months after she was assigned to the case. There is no record of her doing any work on the file in all of December and January. Chief-Abigosis said she had a demanding caseload and the troubled young family was no different than any other on her list. She testified she may have tried several times to drop in on the family, who had no phone, and failed to make a note of it. She couldn't say why the in-home support worker's contract to teach the parents how to parent wasn't renewed when it expired in December.
She told the inquiry she tendered her CFS resignation in July 2001 partly because the strain of attending school while working full time was taking a toll on her. The other reason was the death of three-month-old Echo Sinclair. Phoenix's sister was born April 29, 2001, to Kematch and Sinclair. Chief-Abigosis didn't know Kematch was pregnant. Echo died July 15, 2001, of an acute respiratory infection. Chief-Abigosis said that was a traumatic event and she decided to quit working for the agency.
Her supervisor at the time, Angie Balan, testified Phoenix's parents were expected to comply with the terms of the six-month service agreement.
When Phoenix was in between social workers -- after a previous worker quit in October and before Chief-Abigosis started and took over the file in November -- Balan said she relied on reports from the in-home support teacher to monitor the couple. There were no reports of any problems, she said, referring to case notes she reviewed. Balan has no recollection of the case and said her supervisory notes from that time have not been located.
She said the case file indicates she met with Chief-Abigosis one month before the service agreement expired to see what was happening on the case. Other than Chief-Abigosis's notes saying she dropped by the home and no one was there, there was no contact with the family or any of their supports and relatives in the community.