WINNIPEG -- Social workers who may have failed to protect a young girl from falling through the cracks of Manitoba's child welfare system must be protected from being pilloried in the media, a union lawyer said Wednesday.

Garth Smorang, lawyer for the Manitoba Government Employees Union, is asking for a publication ban on the identities of social workers at an upcoming public inquiry into the horrific beating death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair in 2005.

"The media appears, Mr. Commissioner, to be no longer interested in the accuracy or the truth of the facts that it prints or publishes or broadcasts," Smorang told inquiry commissioner and retired judge Ted Hughes.

"It is primarily interested, in my respectful submission, in the sensationalisation of stories and the laying of blame."

The inquiry, slated to start in September, will look at how the child welfare system failed to protect Sinclair. She had spent most of her life in foster care but was handed back to her mother, Samantha Kematch, in 2004. She suffered near-constant abuse and the hands of Kematch and Kematch's boyfriend, Karl McKay.

While still under the supervision of Child and Family Services, Phoenix was frequently confined, shot with a BB gun, forced to eat her own vomit, and neglected. She died after a brutal assault in the basement of the family's home on the Fisher River reserve north of Winnipeg.

A few months before her death, a social worker went to check on Sinclair and was told she was asleep. He saw a sibling playing outside who appeared healthy and decided that was enough.

Sinclair's death went undetected for nine months, and Kematch and McKay continued to claim benefits in her name. Eventually, a relative called police. The girl's body was found in a shallow grave and Kematch and McKay were convicted of first-degree murder.

The Manitoba Government Employees Union, which represents social workers, has fought to limit the inquiry. It attempted earlier this year to have the death examined instead by a provincial court inquest, which is more limited in scope and lacks the power to subpoena witnesses.

That argument was rejected by the province's Court of Appeal.

The union is now pushing for a publication ban that would forbid the media from naming or taking pictures or video of any of the social workers who dealt with Sinclair.

Subjecting the workers to such media exposure would harm their ability to do their job, Smorang said. The exposure is also much more extreme with web sites and online comments, he added.

"Gone are the days when you're only infamous until garbage day, because on garbage day the papers get thrown out. Now when you're infamous, you're infamous in perpetuity," Smorang said.

"Social workers will become game for the bloody-minded."

Lawyers for several Winnipeg media outlets and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs are to argue against a publication ban on Thursday.

Hughes is scheduled to give his decision July 12.