September 6, 2012
Foster system overloaded: Social worker
By Tamara King, Winnipeg Sun
WINNIPEG — An inquiry into the murder of a five-year-old foster child heard Thursday the first social worker for Phoenix Sinclair only handled the case for a few days following the girl's birth before stepping aside.
The social worker also described a child welfare system that struggles with a lack of resources in an increasingly complex world.
Phoenix was born April 23, 2000, to Samantha Kematch, a young mother who, after being abused and neglected by her own mom, was herself a ward of Child and Family Services until mere months before the girl's birth. Baby Phoenix immediately became a CFS ward.
When intake social worker Marnie Saunderson went to collect Phoenix from the hospital, Kematch seemed "somewhat disinterested," Saunderson said, something that would be unusual for a new parent.
"People are pretty emotional when they are leaving with their baby," said Saunderson on the second day on the inquiry.
Unlike Phoenix's biological father, Steve Sinclair, Kematch didn't help dress the baby as the social worker prepared to leave with the infant.
Five days after Phoenix's birth, Saunderson declared a conflict of interest in the case because one of her first cousins would be an advocate for the biological parents.
In her testimony, Saunderson, a veteran social worker, described an overburdened child welfare system in which a "lack of resources" are a constant problem.
"While we've gotten more money and positions, problems have gotten worse in the world," she said.
Families are more "complex," she said. There's new gangs and new drugs hitting the street, posing new challenges for social workers.
"I'm not sure it has taken the bite out of the workload problems," Saunderson said of additional resources.
In January 2009, Saunderson sent an e-mail to superiors highlighting workload concerns.
"I feel that things here hit a very critical stage wherein many of the workers are overwhelmed and can't meet expectations any longer," she wrote.
At times, Saunderson said she felt she was not meeting families in a timely manner, and often did work on personal time to make sure it got finished.
Kris Saxberg, a lawyer for three CFS agencies, pointed out Saunderson's e-mail of concerns was dated 2009, well after she handled Phoenix's case.
In June 2005, Phoenix was murdered by Kematch and her common-law husband Karl McKay after suffering brutal abuse. The little girl had only been returned to Kematch months before.
Both Kematch and McKay were convicted of murdering Phoenix.
In addition to examining how Phoenix disappeared in the child welfare system, the sweeping public inquiry, scheduled to run into December, is expected to offer a rare public look into the workings of CFS.