WINNIPEG – A social worker who determined that young Phoenix Sinclair was at severe risk of neglect testified Monday that she called for immediate action, but her report was altered by her supervisor.
Debbie De Gale’s testimony at the inquiry into Phoenix’s brutal beating death in 2005 was the latest revelation of turmoil within Manitoba’s child welfare system.
“I felt that the child could be at severe risk and decided to go with a 24-hour response (recommendation),” said De Gale, an intake worker who was involved in the file in May 2004 – a little more than a year before Phoenix’s death.
Instead, her report was altered to play down the risk and loosen the response time to 48 hours, she said. The change on her report was done by her then-supervisor, Diana Verrier – something that was not uncommon.
“I recall in a supervision (meeting) one time telling her that I would appreciate her not doing that to my reports.”
The inquiry is examining how Manitoba child welfare failed to protect Phoenix, who was taken days after her birth from her parents, Samantha Kematch and Steve Sinclair. Kematch and Sinclair had violent pasts and substance abuse problems and were so uninterested in being parents that they didn’t buy baby clothes or supplies before the girl’s birth in April 2000.
Despite her parents’ ongoing problems, Phoenix ended up back with them on a few occasions and was finally left with Kematch in 2004, at the age of four. By that time, Kematch had a new boyfriend named Karl McKay. The couple subjected the girl to horrific abuse before a final deadly assault in the family’s basement.
Phoenix had been shot with a BB gun, forced to eat her own vomit and had been frequently confined to a makeshift pen on the concrete basement floor, Kematch and McKay’s murder trial was told.
Her death in June 2005 went undetected for nine months. Kematch and McKay were given life sentences for first-degree murder.
The inquiry has heard that Phoenix spent her first few months in foster care but was returned to her parents, who increasingly left her in the care of friends.
Over the ensuing years, social workers were frequently unaware of who was taking care of the girl and failed to inspect the homes where she was living.
In April 2004, Kematch, who had been out of the picture for months, showed up at the home of Rohan Stephenson, a family friend, and took Phoenix. Social workers had told Stephenson he was not to give Phoenix to either of her parents – or anyone else – without telling them, but he ignored the warning.
Kematch’s actions only came to light, the inquiry was told Monday, because she applied to have her welfare payments increased by listing Phoenix as a dependent living with her.
A social assistance case worker, who cannot be identified under a publication ban, checked into the family’s file and learned that Kematch was not supposed to have Phoenix. In May 2004, the welfare worker alerted social workers at Winnipeg Child and Family Services who had dealt with the family, but got mixed messages.
“Sorry to keep bugging you, but other people from the agency are really confusing me,” the worker wrote in an email, released at the inquiry, to intake worker Lisa Mirochnick.
“They state that their files say nothing about the child not being allowed to stay with mother Samantha Kematch, but I do believe you told me that the child is to not to be in the mother’s care.”
That is when the file ended up with De Gale, who looked at Phoenix’s history and determined she was at high risk and should be seen within 24 hours.
Under cross-examination, De Gale admitted her supervisor had the authority to alter reports and recommendations.
“Isn’t your supervisor ultimately responsible for determining what the response time is?” asked Kris Saxberg, the lawyer representing child welfare agencies.
“Yes”, De Gale said.
“It’s her decision to make … and two reasonable people can disagree on what the response time is in any situation,” Saxberg added.
Saxberg also pointed out that De Gale wrote in her report the case should be handled by the intake branch of the Winnipeg Child and Family Services Agency, not the crisis response unit, which would have prompted a swifter response.
Even with the call for a 48-hour response, it would be about six weeks before social workers sat down face-to-face with Kematch.
The inquiry is to continue until May. It will soon delve into two more child welfare interventions in the months leading up to Phoenix’s death.