Sinclair inquiry to look at social conditions surrounding child’s death

WinnipegFreePress.com – BreakingNews
24 July 2012.   Larry Kusch

The Phoenix Sinclair inquiry will do more than explore the circumstances surrounding the child’s death and how child welfare authorities responded to the tragedy.

The final phase of the inquiry, scheduled for next year, will examine the broader socio-economic context in which Phoenix’s death occurred, commission counsel Sherri Walsh said today.

“It’s been made clear to us through the course of our investigations that in order to make recommendations to better protect Manitoba children the focus of this inquiry needs to extend beyond the strict parameters of the operations of the child welfare system,” Walsh told a pre-inquiry hearing presided by commissioner Ted Hughes. “The child welfare system alone cannot be expected to address the underlying social conditions which lead children into being in need of protection.”

Walsh made her remarks shortly before Hughes heard arguments over whether the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Southern Chiefs Organization should have standing during certain portions of the inquiry and whether the Manitoba Metis Federation and its child welfare authority should be granted intervener status. He also heard arguments over whether transcripts from pre-hearing interviews with witnesses should be provided to all the parties – instead of commission-provided summaries of what the interviewees said.

Walsh said the first phase of the inquiry, set to begin Sept. 5, would still explore the circumstances surrounding Phoenix Sinclair’s death and what child welfare services were or were not provided to the family.

Phoenix was murdered in June 2005, three months after her child welfare file was closed. She was living with her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl McKay, at the time of her death.

While staying with Kematch and McKay, Phoenix was frequently confined, assaulted and neglected. She died after a brutal assault in the basement of the family’s home on the Fisher River First Nation and her body was found several months later in the community’s landfill. Kematch and McKay were convicted of first-degree murder.

The second phase of the inquiry will focus on the child welfare system’s response to the tragedy, examining the recommendations that came from several reports into Phoenix’s death and how the child welfare system responded to those recommendations.

But now the commission has decided that a third and final phase will be devoted solely to the social conditions surrounding the tragedy, Walsh said.

She said those social conditions include poverty, limited economic and employment opportunities, homelessness and substance abuse.

“Many of the roots of these issues can be traced to issues which the First Nations people in our community have faced for decades, relating to racism, colonialism and the residential school system,” Walsh told Hughes, a retired judge.

She quoted from a provincial government Child Protection and Abuse Manual which said that “Abuse and neglect are not only problems of individual abusers and their victims but are also problems of the social context in which these individuals live.”

Walsh said afterwards that the commission would call witnesses to give testimony on these societal issues.

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