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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Should social workers at the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry have anonymity

Justice Ted Hughes has been asked to conduct a public inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair. She died in 2005 when social workers took her out of her foster home and placed her back with her mother. According to

According to evidence in the first-degree murder trial that led to life sentences for her mother, Samantha Kematch and her stepdad, Karl McKay, Phoenix was frequently confined, shot with a BB gun and forced to eat her own vomit. 
We have seen how social workers who appear to have made mistakes in a child protection case can be vilified in the media. Those involved in the management of the Baby Peter case in England were dragged through the press and scapegoated and judged harshly by the media.

In the case of the Matthew Vaudreuil case in British Columbia, social workers felt targeted by the Gove Inquiry. Some may have suffered for years from the experience.

Too bad critics might say. They might argue that if you fail in your job, then the public has the right to know. Yet, social workers are often trying to manage case loads that are too high; cases that are very complex; resources and budgets that are limited and political agendas that children should be reunited with family as often as possible (the family preservation agenda).  A child kept away from family unnecessarily is a tragedy - a child returned and killed is one also.

RCMP officers in the Robert Dziekanski case in Vancouver (when he was killed by a Taser incident) were not granted anonymity before they were found culpable.

The majority of professionals who make mistakes in their work are not dragged into the media. Public inquiries might be a different kettle of fish because government has purposely set up a process for the public to find out what went wrong.

There are many examples of public inquiries where the names of social workers have been made public and many where they have not. The argument in favour is that the public have the right to know - but do they need to know the who? What perhaps they really have the right to know is what happened.

The goal of a good inquiry is not retribution. Rather it is an attempt to find ways to avoid repetition. Good inquiry seeks to understand but to get there, participants need the freedom to really talk about what happened and why. If the participants fear the consequences, then open discussion is unlikely . Rather, protection of self becomes the goal.

Justice Hughes must decided how best the truth will come out. 


  1. Great Post! However, inquiries are often used to protect the Agency and then assess the blame.

  2. I agree Deona - Inquiries often lose the focus which is to correct rather than blame. This is a point that Professor Eileen Munro has made on several occasions in the UK.