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British Columbia Mother of three slain children dies after years of advocacy in the criminal justice system

Darcie Clarke is shown in this courtroom sketch on the witness stand during the trial of Allan Duane Schoenborn in Kamloops, B.C., on Oct. 14, 2009.

Carl Doherty/The Canadian Press

When he went to see Darcie Clarke three years after the murder of her three young children by their father, then-B.C. attorney-general Barry Penner remembers her poise.

It was 2011 and Mr. Penner had gone to meet Ms. Clarke in her modest apartment in the Vancouver-area community of Coquitlam where Ms. Clarke was born and raised. She offered tea and coffee. And then came two hours of conversation related to her estranged husband’s request for escorted outings. Allan Schoenborn had been living in a nearby psychiatric hospital after Ms. Clarke’s family was wiped out.

“I guess I was surprised she was as composed as she was given the horrible history of what had happened,” Mr. Penner said last week, recalling a meeting so full of sorrow that he said it stands as one of the most challenging moments of his time in government.

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“She was telling me she was trying to live a day at a time and didn’t want to be a burden on anyone.”

Ms. Clarke died on May 30 in Kamloops, her cousin Stacy Galt said. She was 48.

For Ms. Clarke, there was no escaping the tragedy of April, 2008, when she returned to her then-home in Merritt, B.C., to find the bodies of 10-year-old Kaitlyn, eight-year-old Max and five-year-old Cordon. The children had been left with their father, with whom Ms. Clarke had been in a common-law relationship for 14 years. She found the words “forever young” written in soy sauce on a kitchen wall. The children had been killed, one by one, by their father, later found in a trial not criminally responsible on account of a mental-health disorder.

Unlike the outspoken families of some other murder victims, Ms. Clarke kept a low profile. But her quiet pursuit of justice for her three children led her to share her story with some of Canada’s top political leaders to push for change.

Ms. Clarke was a woman many British Columbians had heard of but never seen.

Following her husband’s arrest, Ms. Clarke participated in a call with him, regarding the killings, which was recorded by police as evidence. (She told him she didn’t want to talk to him unless he explained what he did to the children.) She later met with him at a correctional centre for a conversation that was also recorded and played at the trial.

For years, she submitted victim-impact statements pushing back at his bid for privileges at the psychiatric hospital where he still lives. She met with Mr. Penner and also eventually with then-prime minister Stephen Harper ahead of his announcement of criminal-justice reforms.

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In 2012, Christy Clark, then-B.C. premier, apologized for the failure of the province’s system of domestic-violence services to protect Ms. Clarke’s children given past issues around Mr. Schoenborn’s mental health.

By the time of the meeting with Mr. Penner, Ms. Clarke had, with great difficulty, established a new life for herself. Now there was the possibility that her former partner might be out in the community where Ms. Clarke could run into him. “She would sometimes speak matter of factly: ‘I know he’s sick,’" Mr. Penner recalled, indicating she was referring to Mr. Schoenborn. “But I did not sense she was angry at him. She was scared of him.”

Juanita Austin, a reverend at Trinity United Church in Merritt when the children were killed, says she wept at the news of Ms. Clarke’s death, as her heart broke again over the tragedy.

Ms. Austin remembered her first meeting with Ms. Clarke, held at a hospital to plan the children’s memorial service.

“I confess I was a bit terrified. I didn’t know what to expect or what to say. What I found in that room was a petite, vulnerable woman with unruly reddish-blond hair, much like my own,” Ms. Austin wrote in an e-mail exchange last week.

“Because I only knew Darcie in the context of unfathomable grief and loss, I cannot truly comment on her personality except to say that I experienced her as gracious and quiet,” Ms. Austin wrote

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Ms. Clarke leaves her mother and her brother, among other relatives.

According to her cousin, Ms. Galt, Ms. Clarke had returned to Merritt before her death because of her mother’s failing health.

Ms. Galt said that Ms. Clarke’s death due to “health complications” came as a shock, but she did not provide further details about a specific cause of death.

“I did not know how bad things were,” she said in an exchange by text. “Darcie was doing the best that she could to cope with the pain and loss of her three children. It was just too much for her.”

Ms. Galt said Ms. Clarke was a tomboy and excellent student who loved being out in the wilderness, fishing with her father, hanging out on the Pitt River and hiking. At one point, she worked in a fish-and-chips shop.

At about 19, she met and fell in love with Mr. Schoenborn. They started a roofing company and began a family in 1998. There were few problems in the relationship until they became parents, according to a 2012 report on the case prepared by the provincial representative for children and youth.

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Then, in 1999, staff at a local hospital reported Mr. Schoenborn had been driving with his daughter claiming she had been poisoned and sexually abused. Ms. Clarke, according to the representative’s report, told social workers her partner had been acting suspicious and paranoid.

“She described Schoenborn as becoming a 'totally different man’ from the man he usually was.”

On April 5 and 6, 2008, Mr. Schoenborn was the primary caregiver for the children at their home while Ms. Clarke stayed at her mother’s nearby apartment. After returning home, she entered to find, for a moment, that everything looked normal, with the children in bed. Then she realized what had happened.

Mr. Schoenborn had fled but was found about a week later in the bush near Merritt.

Asked, in 2011, about Ms. Clarke’s future plans, Ms. Galt told reporters, “She has no plans for the future. Her future is gone with her children. She can’t get past this.”

Ms. Austin says she hopes that in death Ms. Clarke has a freedom that eluded her in life, as well as the possibility of an important reunion.

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“In her death, I pray that she will finally experience freedom – freedom from the nightmare that must have been her near-constant companion. I pray that she is reunited with her beloved children, and embraced by God’s eternal love."

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