An inquest report released Thursday into the suicide of a 14-year-old Manitoba girl two years ago recommends improvements to the child-welfare agency and sweeping efforts to combat child sexual exploitation in Winnipeg.

Tracia Owen hanged herself in a garage in Winnipeg's West End neighbourhood in August 2005.

Owen had run away from her child-welfare placement and had been smoking crack cocaine in an abandoned garage on Victor Street with another teenage friend in the hours before her death, according to the inquest report.

The next day, another friend came by and found Tracia hanging from a rope.

The inquest heard Owen was first apprehended from her parents when she was two months old and moved more than 65 times through a variety foster homes, group homes, a drug treatment facility and her biological parents' home over the next 14 years.

She was returned to her family in Little Grand Rapids, an isolated reserve on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, at least 17 times, "depending upon the alcohol or domestic abuse problems [her parents] were facing," the report says.

Owen a 'typical' exploited teen

People who worked with Owen suspected she had been sexually abused. She had abused solvents and was considered a "high-risk" placement; her behaviour was often described as aggressive, violent or out-of-control, leading to difficulties placing her in the child-welfare system.
 
The report makes 28 recommendations, many of them aimed at improving the lives of wards of the child-welfare system, noting that Tracia was, "in some ways the 'typical' young person caught up in the drug culture and being sexually exploited — hoping her problems would all go away."

Several recommendations call for protocol and policy changes and more staff training for the Southern Authority, Southeast Child and Family Services and/or local child care committees.

Public must be more aware of abuse

Other recommendations urge police, child-welfare workers, justice officials, community groups, aboriginal groups and government agencies to create a strategy to attack the "horrific" sexual exploitation and drug abuse in children that is "too common" in Winnipeg.

"There is no doubt that more needs to be done when we hear that 400 children a year are being exploited in the visible sex trade and even more in the invisible sex trade," Judge John Guy said in the report. "In some way public awareness must be raised so the public accepts the fact that sexual exploitation of addicted youth is child abuse, is unacceptable and must be combated strenuously."

"[It's] something that any parent of a child in that age category would find unacceptable," Guy wrote. "This must change."