WINNIPEG – Key events in the case of Phoenix Sinclair, who was beaten to death at the age of five after being returned to her mother by social workers:
— April 23, 2000. Phoenix Victoria Hope Sinclair is born to Samantha Kematch and Steve Sinclair. Both young parents have a history of violence and are unprepared to care for the baby. Phoenix is taken into foster care.
— Sept. 5, 2000. Phoenix is returned to her parents under a plan that requires Kematch to undergo a formal psychological assessment and for the couple to have regular visits from an in-home support worker. The plan is not enforced and social workers have no direct contact with the family for four months.
— February 2001. Social worker Delores Chief-Abigosis meets with the family. A plan is drawn up for more regular supervision, but four more months go by without direct contact.
— July 15, 2001. Echo, an infant girl born to Kematch and Sinclair three months earlier, dies from complications from pneumonia. There is no indication she was abused. Sinclair and Kematch have separated. Sinclair has custody of Phoenix, but he begins leaving her more frequently with two friends, Kim Edwards and Rohan Stephenson, or with his sister Jenny. Social workers are aware of the arrangement, but do not keep track of who is caring for the girl.
— October 2001. Social workers Kathy Epps and Lorna Hansen decide to close the file on Phoenix, even though no worker has seen the girl for months.
— February 2003. Phoenix is brought to hospital with an infection caused by a piece of Styrofoam lodged in her nose for three months. The hospital reports a possible case of neglect. Social worker Laura Forrest tries a few times to visit Phoenix at Sinclair’s home, but no one comes to the door or she is told by Sinclair that Phoenix is staying with friends.
— June 2003. Social workers take Phoenix from Sinclair’s home where there has been a day-long drinking party. Sinclair is told to get alcohol counselling before he can get Phoenix back. That condition is not enforced and he regains custody within a few months. He continues to leave Phoenix with friends.
— April 2004. Kematch, who has been out of the picture for months, shows up at Stephenson’s home and takes Phoenix. Social workers had told him not to give Phoenix to Kematch without telling them, but he ignores the warning.
— May 13, 2004. Social worker Tracy Forbes goes to Kematch’s apartment. A man who identifies himself as Wes answers the door and says Kematch and Phoenix are out. Unbeknownst to Forbes, Wes is Karl Wesley McKay, a man with a long history of domestic violence that is outlined in the family services central database.
— July 13, 2004. Forbes and colleague Kathleen Marks visit Kematch at home. Kematch says her main financial support is her boyfriend. The workers do not obtain McKay’s personal information, and report the apartment is clean and Phoenix appears healthy. The following month, Forbes closes the file.
— December 2004. Kematch gives birth again, this time with McKay as the father. Because of Kematch’s troubled history, social workers are called. Shelley Willox tries to get information on the family. A public health nurse does not relay the information, citing privacy laws. Willox does not dig up McKay’s history of violence in the family services database. Kematch appears well and, based on Forbes’s report from July, Willox closes the file.
— March 2005. Two friends of Kematch are disturbed by the way she is treating Phoenix. Kematch is often ignoring the girl, who has started wetting the bed and fondling herself. There is a lock on the bedroom door and one friend hears Phoenix whimpering. The friends try to contact Winnipeg Child and Family Services anonymously, but are told they must give their names. They get another person — a foster parent — to call.
— March 9, 2005. Acting on the phone tip, social workers go to Kematch’s apartment. She meets them at the door and keeps them out in the hallway, saying she has a visitor. The workers see a baby who appears well cared-for and leave without seeing Phoenix. Her file is closed.
— April 2005. The family moves to a house on the Fisher River reserve north of Winnipeg. Phoenix is frequently confined to the basement, hit, shot with a pellet gun and forced to eat her own vomit. Other children in the home, including McKay’s two sons from a previous relationship, are treated well.
— June 11, 2005. Phoenix dies after a final violent beating on the basement’s concrete floor. McKay and Kematch bury her near the reserve’s landfill. They continue to pretend she is alive and collect welfare benefits with her listed as a dependent.
— Fall 2005. Kematch is again pregnant and tells health-care workers that Phoenix is alive. A social worker writes in a report that Phoenix is “A+W” — alive and well.
— March 6, 2006. McKay’s former common-law wife calls police and says her sons have told her Phoenix has been killed. Police and a social worker track down Kematch, who tries to pass off a friend’s daughter as Phoenix. The ruse does not work and Kematch is arrested.
— March 2006. McKay, after intense questioning by police, leads officers to the spot where Phoenix is buried. Forensic evidence shows the young girl suffered beatings so severe, her injuries were not unlike those suffered in a car crash. McKay and Kematch blame each other.
— December 2008. McKay and Kematch are convicted of first-degree murder and are sentenced to life in prison with no parole for at least 25 years.
— March 25, 2011. Attorney General Andrew Swan announces the Honourable Ted Hughes will conduct and inquiry to examine the circumstances surrounding the death of Phoenix Sinclair and in particular to inquire into:
- the child-welfare services provided or not provided to Phoenix Sinclair and her family under The Child and Family Services Act;
- any other circumstances, apart from the delivery of child-welfare services, directly related to the death of Phoenix Sinclair; and
- why the death remained undiscovered for several months.
— Feb. 6, 2012. The Manitoba Government Employees’ Union files a motion to suspend the inquiry.
— Feb. 16, 2012. The Court of Appeal denies MGEU’s motion to suspend the inquiry.
— June 2012. Ted Hughes sets Sept. 5 as the start date for inquiry hearings.
— July 2012. Hughes denies a motion to conceal the identities of social workers.
— Sept. 5, 2012. The inquiry begins.
— Feb. 2013. The inquiry’s budget is hiked from $4.7 million to $6.1 million.
— A publication ban application is made by three of McKay’s children and a former spouse.
— March 12, 2013. Publication ban granted for Karl McKay’s children and a former spouse.
— March 13, 2013. Inquiry put on hold to sort out a potential conflict of interest case involving a lawyer, Kris Saxberg, representing Child and Family Services authorities and witnesses.
— March 19, 2013. Conflict of interest issue resolved. Saxberg informs inquiry that some of his clients will be getting new lawyers.
— April 15, 2013. Inquiry resumes.
— April 25, 2013. Second phase of inquiry launches.
— May 27, 2013. Third and final phase of the inquiry begins.
— July 22, 2013. Final submissions begin.
— Dec. 15, 2013. Report delivered to the Manitoba government.
— Jan. 31, 2014. Commissioner Ted Hughes issues a three-volume report after an inquiry that cost $14 million. Hughes concludes child welfare fundamentally misunderstood its mandate to protect children and left Phoenix “defenceless against her mother’s cruelty” and the “sadistic violence” of the woman’s boyfriend. He recommends Manitoba take the lead to address the disproportionate number of aboriginal children in care across Canada.
— The Canadian Press / Global News staff