Testimony resumes at inquiry into killing of Manitoba girl failed by foster

Associated Press

WINNIPEG - An inquiry into the killing of a young girl who fell through the cracks of Manitoba's child welfare is expected to hear more testimony today about overburdened social workers dealing with a culture of poverty and violence.

The public inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair resumes this morning following a two-month delay caused by legal wrangling over witness interviews.

Phoenix was killed by her mother and mother's boyfriend in 2005, at the age of five, after she was removed from a foster home and handed back to her mother.

The inquiry is looking at what went wrong — why Phoenix was given back to her family, why case workers closed her file, and why her death went unnoticed for nine months.

A child welfare supervisor, Andrew Orobko, will resume his testimony today.

Before the inquiry broke in September, Orobko described how he and other social workers in Winnipeg's North End neighbourhood suffered under high caseloads in one of Canada's poorest districts.

Orobko testified that gangs had an "octopus-like grasp" on the neighbourhood, and social workers had caseloads that were double or triple the amount suggested as a standard by a U.S. research group.

The inquiry earlier heard that Phoenix was taken from her teenaged mother, Samantha Kematch, shortly after her birth because Kematch had a history of violence and expressed little interest in being a parent.

Orobko has told the inquiry he originally drew up a plan to put Phoenix in care for at least three months, with Kematch having weekly visits.

Several other workers would handle the case before Phoenix was eventually handed back to Kematch in 2004. In early 2005, a social worker went to check on Phoenix, was told she was asleep and left without seeing her. It was the last time anyone from child and family services attempted to see Phoenix before her death.

A few months later, Phoenix was beaten to death on the basement floor of the home on the Fisher River where Kematch and her boyfriend, Karl McKay had moved. Kematch and McKay were later convicted of first-degree murder.

Evidence at their trial showed Phoenix was frequently neglected, abused, shot with a BB gun and forced to eat her own vomit.

The young girl was buried in a shallow grave near the Fisher River dump, and Kematch continued to claim welfare benefits with Phoenix listed as a dependent until the death was discovered in March 2006.

The inquiry will hear from approximately 140 witnesses between now and the end of May, barring any more legal disputes. Testimony ground to a halt in September after lawyers for several child welfare authorities filed a complaint with the Manitoba Court of Appeal. The lawyers had been given summaries of pre-inquiry witness interviews, but wanted full transcripts instead. The appeal court rejected that request.

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