Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Tragedy of Vulnerability

"At least thirteen times throughout her life, Winnipeg Child and Family Services received notice of concerns for Phoenix's safety and well-being from various sources, the last one coming three months before her death.
"Throughout, files were opened and closed, often without a social worker ever laying eyes on Phoenix.
"Unfortunately, the system failed to act on what it knew, with tragic results. Phoenix was defenceless against her mother's cruelty and neglect, and the sadistic violence of McKay, whose identity was never researched by the agency, but about whom it had ample disturbing information. By not accessing and acting on the information it had, and by not following the road maps offered by clear-thinking workers, the child-welfare system failed to protect Phoenix and support her family."
Commissioner Ted Hughes, enquiry judge, Winnipeg
Phoenix Sinclair is shown in a family photo released by the Commission of Inquiry looking into her 2005 death.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO     Phoenix Sinclair is shown in a family photo released by the Commission of Inquiry looking into her 2005 death.
"There is a genocide that's continuing to happen. The precedent for apprehension of children against the will of families started in the residential school era. It's still happening today.
"We have to work on creating a healing mechanism for families and that is not enough of a focus right now."
Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs
Grand Chief Nepinak has predictably fallen back on the standard accusation to explain just why it is that so many aboriginal communities harbour parents who haven't much interest in the welfare of their children, and who neglect and abuse them. The Assembly of First Nations is dead set against having any aboriginal child taken away from its family, no matter how neglected or abused that child might be, and taken outside First Nations communities, for to deprive reservations of their children is to deprive First Nations of their birthright.

The fault lies with the residential school system imposed on First Nations communities throughout Canada, creating dysfunctional adults forgetful of their heritage and deprived of pride, leading them to abuse of drugs and alcohol, familial violence, poverty, crime and abusive parenthood. The white man, in his abysmal ignorance brought this situation into reality by White society's intention to de-nativize aboriginal Canadians, to haul them into the societal mainstream drumming their aboriginal inheritance, their language, traditions and history out of their consciousness, leaving them distraught and rootless.

This is the story line heard relentlessly in pursuit of imbuing the greater community with a collective sense of guilt and responsibility for the larger issue of dysfunction within aboriginal communities. It is supportive of explaining readily aboriginal crime, violence, and complete disregard for the rule of law, with the claims that as separate and distinct nations, First Nations obey their own laws. In so doing rejecting those meant to protect all Canadians. When aboriginal children are taken into protective custody outside the First Nations communities, it is a reflection of misguided White paternalism and as such, abhorrent.

The voices of those aboriginals who did go through the residential school system, and value that experience which prepared them for life within the larger community, educating them and giving them the tools for self-sufficiency, including the pride inherent in being able to qualify for good paying jobs outside reserves, resulting in First Nations professionals whose intelligence and capabilities equal that of any other high-achieving Canadian, are seldom heard, but they do speak, from time to time, in denial of claims that their experience in the residential school system had no benefit to them.

A just-concluded enquiry into the neglect, abuse and subsequent death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair at the hands of her disinterested mother and her abusive boyfriend, found Manitoba child welfare gravely deficient in the manner in which it undertakes protection of the vulnerable children it is tasked to follow and to protect from harm, irrespecitive of the source. Commissioner Hughes recommended the province take the lead in addressing the disproportionality of aboriginal children in protective care.

Phoenix had been taken into custody at birth. During her brief lifetime, no fewer than 27 agency workers were serially responsible for her file. She was returned repeatedly to her mother, Samantha Kematch, even though the woman's indifference to her child was evident to those case workers. The enquiry concluded that Phoenix's mother and her boyfriend Karl McKay neglected, confined, tortured and beat the little girl. Phoenix finally died of extensive injuries, alone on the cold basement floor of the family home on the Fisher River reserve.

Her little body was buried close to the community dump, in a shallow grave. And life resumed as normal, with her mother continuing to collect her entitled child subsidy cheques. When her mother was allowed to take custody of Phoenix in 2004, she had partnered with "a dangerous man from whom the agency could have, and should have, saved Phoenix", the judge wrote in his final draft resulting from the enquiry.

The enquiry came in at a cost of $14-million, hearing from 126 witnesses. Mr. Hughes made 62 recommendations. Among those, that the child-welfare agencies must foremost assess a child's well-being when a family's situation comes to their attention; face-to-face contact included of necessity. All elements of the agencies and community organizations must undertake a far better job communicating with one another on active files.

Both Phoenix Sinclair's mother, Samantha Kematch, and her boyfriend Karl McKay, were convicted of first-degree murder in 2008. Their story, and that of Phoenix should represent a hideous, but rare travesty of a child's life trammelled with pain and injury leading to death. But sadly, it is not all that rare an event, not necessarily confined only within aboriginal communities, but proportionately overwhelmingly so.

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