Don't forget Phoenix Sinclair, lawyer tells inquiry

Murder victim Phoenix Sinclair. (File Photo)

Murder victim Phoenix Sinclair. (File Photo)

James Turner, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:20 PM ET

WINNIPEG - No matter what comes out at a very public examination into Manitoba Child and Family Services' (CFS) involvement in the short life of Phoenix Sinclair, nobody should lose sight of the fact the little girl somehow mysteriously disappeared from society's radar.

That message was delivered by lawyer Sherri Walsh on Wednesday in her opening comments as commission counsel to inquiry Commissioner Ted Hughes, who is presiding over the first-ever public inquiry into the provincial child-welfare system.

"(Phoenix became) invisible to an entire community, one which includes social service agencies, schools, neighbours, friends and family. So invisible as to literally disappear," Walsh said.

Public hearings are now underway in the first phase of the inquiry and will continue until late December.

Phoenix was abused and murdered at age five by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and Kematch's boyfriend, Karl McKay, at their Fisher River First Nation home in June 2005, a few months after she was returned to Kematch's care and her CFS file closed. Her death went undiscovered for nine months.

Walsh said the inquiry, which was called in 2006 but dragged down by delays including those stemming from Kematch and McKay's 2008 murder trial, will give the public "a unique opportunity" to see how CFS operates. It will also shine a light on the people the system serves, those employed in it and the community in which Phoenix lived.

"Phoenix Sinclair, of course, was more than just a client of the child welfare system," Walsh said. "If this inquiry is truly going to make a difference to better protect Manitoba children ... we must consider all the circumstances that make such children vulnerable, which put their safety and well-being at risk."

Walsh entered into evidence a small number of photos of Phoenix, calling it a "small step" towards ensuring she remains the focus of the inquiry.

Walsh said Kematch and McKay were each offered the opportunity to have standing at the inquiry but declined. Kematch was also approached to see if she would even informally discuss her interactions with CFS, but refused.

Walsh added a number of misperceptions about CFS came as a result of the couple's murder trial and she hopes the inquiry would correct them.

Hughes was given a lengthy primer in the bureaucratic history and terminology of CFS in Manitoba through the inquiry's first witness, Alana Brownlee.

Brownlee, now the CEO of Winnipeg CFS, took Hughes through the tangled web of jurisdiction and who answers to whom in the CFS system, as well as the reasoning and history behind a fundamental shift in policy in the provincial child-welfare system, dubbed "devolution."

At its root, devolution sought to try and address over-representation of aboriginal kids in the child-welfare system through various means. Hughes was told that of the roughly 9,000 kids currently in CFS care in the province, 8,000 are of aboriginal heritage.

A major focus of the inquiry will be on the Winnipeg CFS agency between 2000 and 2005 -- it was dissolved and reformed into what it is today -- and how it dealt with Phoenix's file before it was closed.

james.turner@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @heyjturner

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