An inquiry into the beating death of a five-year-old girl, whose disappearance from a Manitoba community went unnoticed for nine months, is expected to lead to major changes in how at-risk children are cared for in the province.

New figures suggest a solution is urgently needed, as the number of children in provincial care has skyrocketed in the years since Phoenix Sinclair’s death.

Phoenix was fatally beaten by her mother, Samantha Kematch, and the woman’s boyfriend, Karl McKay, in June 2005. The child was then buried in a shallow grave.

Despite the fact she was a ward of the province, nine months passed before authorities noticed she had died.

An inquiry into Phoenix’s death is looking at why it took so long, as well as how she fell into her mother’s care when Kematch was not supposed to have custody of her daughter.

Provincial child welfare authorities say Phoenix’s death occurred at a time when they were understaffed and overworked, struggling with a caseload three times the level they could handle. Since then, an estimated 230 caseworker positions have been created.

But new figures suggest the number of children in the province’s care has skyrocketed in the years since Phoenix’s death, from 6,600 in 2006 to 9,730 in 2012. It is estimated that as many as 8,000 of those children are aboriginal, like Phoenix.

Part of the inquiry’s mandate is to look at how social issues determine why children end up in provincial care, including risk factors such as poverty, and what should be done to improve the child-welfare system.

“Certainly we recognize that we have to look at the underlying conditions that make people vulnerable and lead them into need of protection,” said commission counsel Sherri Walsh. “And hopefully offer recommendations that strengthen people before they need the care of the protection of the child-welfare system.”

Thousands of pages of reports will be submitted to the inquiry, which will also hear from 140 witnesses, including First Nations elders.

Phoenix’s father, Steve Sinclair, has already appeared before the inquiry, telling of his time as a ward of the province. Sinclair said he loved his daughter, but his childhood left him scarred and his struggles with alcoholism left him unfit to be a parent.

Sinclair said he often left his daughter in the care of friends, who had applied to become her foster parents.

The inquiry will likely carry on until May, with a final report expected in September.

With a report from CTV’s Winnipeg Bureau Chief Jill Macyshon