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Phoenix's legacy is just beginning

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The details of the atrocities inflicted on the little girl during her short life were almost too much for any compassionate human being to handle -- a nightmare made even worse by the fact they were repeated over and over again in press coverage of the criminal trial of her killers; two people who were supposed to have protected her.

There is no denying Phoenix suffered before she died and suffered badly. Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to this case over the past several months knows it.

But now the trial is over, and those of us who did pay attention need to figure out how to deal with our anger and our outrage.

For what it's worth, I offer this: While her parents and the system (and indeed, all of us, as members of a supposedly caring society) failed Phoenix miserably, the tragedy of her death will inspire change -- and from that change, another little girl's life will be saved.

It might not provide a lot of comfort in the here and now, but it's the truth and it's something positive on to which we can hold.

Do you remember Tracia Owen?

In August 2005 -- two months after Phoenix was left to die on a basement floor -- Tracia hanged herself in an abandoned Winnipeg garage. She was 14 years old. She was also addicted to drugs and had been repeatedly sexually exploited on our city's streets by men who had deluded themselves into thinking that what they were paying to do to her was something other than child abuse.

Like Phoenix, Tracia had been dealt a rough hand in life. Born into a dysfunctional, alcoholic family that loved her but was incapable of properly caring for her, she was shuffled from foster home to foster home, returned to her parents by child welfare authorities 17 times by the time she was 12.

Tracia's death was a suicide. But the horrors she endured until she just couldn't endure them any longer outraged Manitoba's chief medical examiner -- so much so, he ordered a provincial inquest in an effort to draw attention to the circumstances that led Tracia to end her life. The hope was that it might prevent others from following in her footsteps.

I bring up Tracia because the details that emerged during that inquest were appalling. Judge John Guy certainly thought so. In his final report, he called the sexual exploitation of youth "a serious problem in our city" and wrote: "Let there be no mistake -- these are not twenty something year old sex trade workers being solicited on the streets by johns. These are children being exploited by men who drive around our streets looking for these young girls believing they can engage in this kind of activity with impunity.

This must change."

I bring up Tracia for another reason, too. The change Guy referred to is starting to happen.

Earlier this month, the provincial government announced the second phase of a sexual exploitation strategy it launched in 2002 -- a $2.4 million, 26-point plan that includes a new team of street outreach workers, a safe rural healing lodge, funding for mentorship and prevention programs, and a commitment to increasing public awareness and targeting offenders.

The front-line workers I spoke to called it, among other things, "innovative," "comprehensive," "well-rounded" and "awesome."

Gord Mackintosh, Manitoba's minister of family services and housing, told me that "it's really important that people know -- that children know -- that there's a lot of people who care about this."

The new strategy is named Tracia's Trust, in honour of the girl who didn't survive her own personal nightmare, but whose death will end up saving others.

Phoenix Sinclair's murder has already sparked several reviews of Manitoba's child welfare system. Over 200 recommendations for operational changes have already been made.

Once all potential appeals have been heard, a provincial inquest into her death will be held. Undoubtedly, more changes will come as a result.

Rest in peace, Phoenix. Your suffering is over. Your legacy is just beginning.


Marlo Campbell writes for Uptown Magazine.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2008 a11

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