VICTORIA - Three vulnerable children murdered by their mentally ill father could have been saved if British Columbia's social safety net was working properly, says a scathing report by the children's commissioner that immediately prompted government to apologize to the bereaved mother.
Kaitlynne, 10; Max, 8; and Cordon, 5; died horribly in April 2008 in Merritt, B.C. after enduring lives of upheaval and anxiety caused by domestic violence and their father's untreated serious mental illness and addictions, said the report by B.C.'s Independent Children's Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.
Allan Schoenborn, the subject of an intense Canadawide search after the gruesome discovery of his children's bodies, was found not criminally responsible for murdering them due to mental illness.
The unemployed labourer was arrested and released three times in the week prior to the children's deaths and 14 professionals were involved with the family.
Turpel-Lafond's report said the deaths of the Schoenborn children didn't have to happen.
"These were preventable deaths," said Turpel-Lafond at a news conference releasing her report, "Honouring Kaitlynne, Max and Cordon, Make Their Voices Heard Now."
"If it (the system) had worked appropriately, even by the standards in place at the time, there's a very high likelihood, as I conclude in this report, that the deaths of these children would have been avoided."
Premier Christy Clark stood in the legislature and formally apologized to the children's devastated mother, Darcie Clarke.
"We as a province can and must do better," said Clark, adding that the government will implement the report's recommendations and find the resources needed to protect children.
"I got back into politics because I wanted to make sure our province was doing a better job supporting families," said Clark. "It is clear today government must do more."
Children's Minister Mary McNeil said her ministry will establish a domestic violence unit to work with a newly formed wide-ranging government committee that aims to develop an action plan to support children and families hurt by domestic violence.
McNeil acknowledged the new domestic violence unit currently does not come with new government funding, but the action plan due to be developed by July 31 will include targets and time frames.
The report said the Schoenborn family slipped through cracks in the province's social protective system _ child protection, income assistance, mental health and justice supports _ with tragic results.
Schoenborn, a violent, drug-using, mentally ill father; Clarke, a mother living in fear from her abusive husband, and the confused and frightened children, were all let down by the system, the report said.
"Despite numerous and public subsequent incidents of irrational, paranoid, aggressive and violent behaviour, 1999 was the last known contact with the mental health system (for Schoenborn)," Turpel-Lafond said.
She blasted the court system for releasing Schoenborn from custody on the strength of a telephone bail hearing where the justice did not even know who was talking during the proceedings.
"This is a disgrace to the justice system of British Columbia," Turpel-Lafond said.
She told reporters that the children's mother received little help from the Ministry for Children and Family Development when she and the children moved to Merritt to escape the dangers from Schoenborn, who was growing increasingly delusional.
The children's ministry often and frequently failed to appropriately live up to its mandate to protect children, Turpel-Lafond said.
"There's little or no effort by (the ministry) in the Interior to connect the mother with supports. The responsibility to protect these children was left on the shoulders of their mother," she said.
The report said the mother was involved in a ministry safety plan, but at the time of the murders she was "sinking into profound depression, despair and anxiety. She was not given concrete suggestions or strategies on how to protect her children or how to keep Schoenborn away from the home, except to call police should he show up."
It said the safety plan did not adequately consider the mother's ability to carry it out. And the report said Clark was terrified child protection workers would place her children in government care.
"No one should have to take this on," said Turpel-Lafond. "This family, essentially, fell through the cracks."
The loss of the three children is heartbreaking especially since they were preventable, Turpel-Lafond said.
"Their father's violent behaviour attracted the attention of the child-serving and criminal justice systems, but through it all, the children did what children around them were doing — they went to school, tried to fit in the community and sought out friendship and support from others," the report said.
Turpel-Lafond called on the B.C. government to do more to understand the risks children face with a parent suffering from untreated mental illness and she called for a more co-ordinated system to protect children living with domestic violence.
Clarke testified at Schoenborn's murder trial that she believed it was possible he might harm her, but she didn't believe he would ever harm the children.
Several witnesses said he acted like he was "losing it" or described him as "nuts" in the days before the murders.
Schoenborn became convinced his children were being molested and he told his trial he had no choice but to kill them, because no one — including his wife — would be able to help.
Days before the murder, police were called to the children's school, where Schoenborn was accused of threatening a child he thought was bullying his daughter.
School staff and a police dispatcher thought Schoenborn was falling apart, yet police officers and a bail supervisor who dealt with him later described him as quiet and co-operative
Schoenborn was separated from his wife and Clarke testified she stayed at her mother's while Schoenborn stayed in her trailer home when he visited the children.
When she left the day before the murders, she said Schoenborn "appeared depressed."
Since being found not criminally responsible for killing his children, Schoenborn has been held at the B.C. Forensic Psychiatric Institute near Vancouver.
Turpel-Lafond said she's remains deeply concerned with the lack of financial commitment the government provided to the children's ministry and other government ministries in last month's provincial budget.
"It's a question of what counts, and if it counts you do something about it other than give a speech," she said. "I'm calling on the government again to get its priorities aligned and do this work."
Turpel-Lafond said McNeil and Justice Minister Shirley Bond should lobby Finance Minister Kevin Falcon to add more money to the children's budget.
"I was not satisfied on budget day with the perspective that we will all do more with less," she said. "You can't do any more in this system for less."
She said the domestic violence and family support issues raised in her latest report echo a report she delivered more than two years ago in a Victoria-area murder-suicide that examined the circumstances surrounding the murder of six-year-old Christian Lee, his mother, Sunny Park, and her two elderly parents, at the hands of father and husband Peter Lee.
Turpel-Lafond's report on the Christian Lee murder called for better co-ordination between government social service and justice agencies and improved domestic violence training and services, including a separate domestic violence court.
Peter Lee was under court orders to stay away from the family home and on bail on charges relating to his attempt to kill his wife in a staged car crash when the murder-suicide occurred.