Province, child welfare agencies moving on inquest report's recommendations

Child welfare officials say they have already addressed many of the criticisms contained in an inquest report on the suicide of 14-year-old Tracia Owen.

Child welfare officials say they have already addressed many of the criticisms contained in an inquest report on the suicide of 14-year-old Tracia Owen.
Owen was in the care of Southeast Child and Family Services in Winnipeg when she hanged herself in an abandoned inner-city garage in August 2005.

In the inquest report released Wednesday, provincial court Judge John Guy criticized the child welfare agency for its handling of Owen's case. First taken from her family's care when she was two months old, Owen was moved more than 65 times through a variety foster homes, group homes, a drug treatment facility and her biological parents' home.

Elsie Flette, head of the First Nations of Southern Manitoba Child and Family Services Authority, which oversees the Southeast agency that took Owen into care, said changes are already underway at the agency. 

"We have been working with that agency over the last number of years now to build capacity and improve services," she said. "The agency is very co-operative, and as concerned as we are about the quality of services."

The authority launched a review of the agency last September, Flette added.

"It's quite broad in scope. We're looking at all the issues that [Guy] recommended in the report, that we take a look at. The intent of that is to build on changes, improvements that the agency has already made, identify where more work is needed or where things still need to be done that aren't underway," she said.

'How did we fail this child?'

The purpose of the inquest report was not to look at who's to blame for Owen's death, Flette said.

"It's to say, 'How did we fail this child?' Because clearly we all failed her. And what can we do to prevent similar deaths?

"[Guy] makes recommendations not just to Southeast, but to the province, certainly to the feds, to ourselves, to the wider system, to the community at large — I mean, he's asking the question, 'How come we have 14-year-olds on the street and nobody gets upset about that?' That's a bigger question for all of us, to say who's to blame. I think we all carry some responsibility for these children."

Before her death, Owen ran away from the home where she had been placed and had been selling sex on the streets of Winnipeg in order to support a drug habit.

The provincial government also responded to the inquest report's recommendations urging police, child welfare workers, justice officials, community groups, aboriginal groups and government agencies to create a strategy to attack sexual exploitation and drug abuse in children.

Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh said a summit is planned this winter to determine what changes the provincial government needs to make to reduce the incidence of child exploitation.

"The judge put a lot of emphasis on the need to develop this thinking and work co-operatively in a way never seen before, making sure that there's a task force that is multi-disciplinary and brings the best minds, the best ideas to one common table," Mackintosh said.

A permanent task force will be one of the outcomes of the summit, Mackintosh said. Other changes are also likely, possibly including changes to the law.