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Hope and renewal: foster mom says girl's death can renew Manitoba child welfare

WINNIPEG – The woman who was called “nana-mom” by a Manitoba girl bounced in and out of foster care before she was murdered says the five-year-old’s death cannot be in vain.

Kim Edwards, who looked after Phoenix Sinclair during part of her short life, told an inquiry that the child’s legacy must be one of hope and renewal.

All children in Manitoba are entitled to protection, but the same privilege shouldn’t be given to the social workers who failed Phoenix, Edwards said in her final submission Monday.

“The time for excuses must end with your report,” an emotional Edwards told Commissioner Ted Hughes.

“Our Phoenix will create a safer and better life for many other vulnerable children in Manitoba. Her legacy will renew the child-welfare system. All children must be equal under the law.

“We believe the purpose of Phoenix’s senseless death was to change the system in a fundamental and positive way for all children in Manitoba and across this great nation.”

Hughes is examining how Phoenix slipped through the cracks and how her death at the hands of her mother and mother’s boyfriend went undiscovered for months.

Final submissions are scheduled to wrap up next week and a report is expected by December.

The inquiry, which began last year, has heard from 126 witnesses and is estimated to be one of the most expensive inquiries in Manitoba’s history.

Phoenix was killed by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and her stepfather, Karl McKay, after repeated and horrific abuse. Both were convicted of first-degree murder in 2008.

The pair neglected, confined and beat Phoenix. She died of her extensive injuries on the cold basement floor of the couple’s home on the Fisher River reserve in 2005. She was buried in a shallow grave by the community dump and Kematch continued to collect child subsidy cheques.

“Phoenix’s mother and stepfather murdered her,” Edwards said. “Many people knew of the abuse, watched while the abuse unfolded. Many people knew of the murder yet they said and did nothing.”

Phoenix was taken by Child and Family Services at least twice during her lifetime — once at birth and again three years later — but she was returned to her mother each time.

Although Edwards and Phoenix’s biological father, Steve Sinclair, knew the child best, Edwards said their voice has been “reduced to a whisper.”

“She wasn’t forgotten,” she said as she tearfully talked about the beautiful, vibrant brown-eyed girl. “She was not like one of my children. She was one of my children.”

Despite her young age, Phoenix knew too much, Edwards said.

“When you looked into her eyes, you saw an old soul.”

The commission’s mandate is to determine the circumstances surrounding Phoenix’s death and to make recommendations for improving child welfare in Manitoba.

Hughes thanked Edwards and assured her Phoenix’s legacy will be a positive one.

“The prime and driving force behind this inquiry is to bring in recommendations that will make some fundamental changes and bring a positive lifestyle for children in Manitoba over and above what it has been,” he said.

Over the next two weeks, lawyers from all parties involved in the inquiry will have a chance to say their final piece.

Trevor Ray, lawyer for the union representing social workers, argued staff didn’t have a “crystal ball” and couldn’t have foreseen the girl’s death.

Child welfare is plagued by a lack of training, lack of resources, inadequate staffing and high caseloads — all of which make it hard for social workers to do their job, he said.

“These are not problems that are going to go away overnight,” Ray told Hughes. “Social workers try their best in very difficult circumstances … No one would ever knowingly leave a child at risk.”

Jeff Gindin, who represents Edwards and Sinclair, said Phoenix’s death was the result of the failures of many. Social workers didn’t do enough to investigate McKay when he became involved with Kematch, he said. A simple background check would have revealed a violent history which should have raised the alarm, he said.

When authorities were contacted shortly before the girl’s death about allegations that she was being abused, a social worker visited Kematch and left without going into the apartment, let alone seeing if Phoenix was OK, Gindin pointed out.

Her file was closed.

“There is just no excuse,” Gindin told Hughes. “The file should never have been closed.

“Within three months, she was tortured to death.”