The Legacy of Phoenix Sinclair

Phoenix Victoria Hope Sinclair was born in Winnipeg on April 23, 2000. She was apprehended by child welfare authorities at birth, and spent her life in and out of the care of her parents. She died at Fisher River on June 11, 2005 but her death was not discovered until the winter of 2006. Her mother and her mother’s partner were charged and convicted of first-degree murder and are serving life sentences.

In March 2011, an inquiry was called under The Manitoba Evidence Act to look into:

  • the child welfare services provided or not provided to Phoenix and her family under Manitoba’s Child and Family Services Act;
  • any other circumstances, apart from the delivery of child welfare services, directly related to Phoenix’s death; and
  • why her death went undiscovered for nine months.

The Hon. Ted Hughes, O.C., Q.C., LL.D. (Hon) was appointed as Commissioner and heard from 126 witnesses over the course of 92 days of hearings. His final report was released on January 31, 2014 and contains 62 recommendations intended to effect change in the child welfare system and to better protect Manitoba children. The report is available in 3 volumes:

  • Volume 1 contains the Executive Summary and Recommendations, as well as chapters on the Inquiry process, an overview of Manitoba’s child welfare system and the framework for analysis;
  • Volume 2 contains the story of the life of Phoenix Sinclair, detail on Manitoba’s child welfare system today and how it has responded to the various reports arising from the death of Phoenix, as well as an examination of the role of the wider community in protecting and promoting children and families;
  • Volume 3 contains appendices, including related court orders, Commission rulings and papers commissioned by the Inquiry.

The report is rich in content and a close read is warranted if you’ve an interest in inquiry processes in Canada, child protection or systemic failures.

Hughes concludes his report with a challenge to government and community to take what is known about the risk factors for maltreatment of children and turn that knowledge into action at all levels, focusing on early interventions to make the greatest difference and give children the best chance. He writes:

Everything we know tells us that Phoenix was at high risk for maltreatment. The child welfare system knew it too, and apprehended her at birth. Unfortunately, the system failed to act on what it knew, with tragic results.

The same gap between knowledge and action can be seen in our response as a society to the needs of families and young children.

We know the factors that can lead to maltreatment of children and we heard over and over that Phoenix’s situation was not unique. In fact, we heard that there are many children in just such circumstances, if not worse. And yet, so far we have failed to take the steps necessary to fully protect our children.

Having listened to academic experts and those with on-the-ground experience, it is clear to me that what is needed is a coherent and collaborative approach to supporting families and preventing maltreatment of children before they ever come into contact with child welfare.

This means intervening in children’s lives early, for best results. It means making programs available to all children, to give them the best start in life. (Volume 2, page 397 (493))

Of all the changes that may flow from this Inquiry, my hope is that this will be the lasting legacy — provision of universally available, community-based early interventions that will not only support healthy development of children and their families, but in doing so, will also reduce the future demand for services provided through the child welfare system.

(Note: I was privileged to work with Commissioner Hughes as part of the Inquiry staff led by Commission Counsel, Sherri Walsh.) 

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