OTTAWA – A woman whose cousin’s children were murdered by their mentally ill father says changes to the Not Criminally Responsible justice system might give her shattered family some breathing room to heal.
Stacy Galt gave a parliamentary committee an emotionally charged, blow-by-blow account Monday of Allan Schoenborn’s murderous rampage that took the lives of his 10-year-old daughter and his sons, aged eight and five.
The testimony left her sobbing and convulsing, more than five years after her cousin Darcie Clarke’s children were killed in Merritt, B.C., in April 2008.
“It’s just unbelievably terrifying because if he gets out, I know she’s dead — and I’m helping Darcie,” Galt told MPs on the Commons justice committee.
“He’s not going to let me go. He wanted to kill her children in front of her so she would suffer.”
After her initial 12-minute address, Galt, shaking badly, had to be helped from the committee room to compose herself.
The Conservative government has introduced legislation that will toughen up the system for handling people deemed Not Criminally Responsible (NCR) of violent offences.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the changes in early February in Vancouver where he specifically cited the Schoenborn case.
The law would create a new high-risk category that would hold mentally ill offenders longer without assessment reviews and make it far more difficult for them to leave psychiatric facilities, even under escort. High-risk individuals would be reviewed every three years, rather than annually.
The government changes also include mandatory notification of victims when NCR individuals are released.
Mental health professionals, including the Canadian Psychiatric Association, say the changes are unnecessary and counter-productive, although there is widespread support for mandatory victim notification.
Galt said her cousin is “a wisp of a person” who is unable to handle attending Schoenborn’s annual assessment hearing.
“I’m the one that has to sit there and look at the eyes of a devil and know what he did,” said Galt, her voice constricted by tears.
“I want him to get care. I need him to get care. But I also need my cousin to have time to heal.”
Holding the hearings — which are required by law to assess whether changes in treatment, such as supervised community visits, are needed — only every three years would give victim’s families some respite, she said.
Galt was followed in testifying by a five different mental health and legal professionals who respectfully said the bill won’t work as intended.
Patrick Baillie, Calgary psychologist, opened his address by offering Galt his condolences “for her exceptional loss and by agreeing with her there are clear breaks in the existing system that need to be repaired.”
He said the kinds of tragedies that Galt described demand a response.
“But let’s be clear, what the legislation intends to do is change the parameters around NCR,” said Baillie.
He noted that all the recent high-profile tragedies that are driving the government legislation — the Schoenborn case, a bus beheading in Manitoba, a doctor who killed his kids in Quebec — were committed by people “none of whom previously had been found NCR and each of whom had been involved in their provincial health care system.”
In other words, the Conservative bill addresses the wrong end of the problem.
Dr. Alexander Simpson, the chief of forensic psychiatry at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, called said the high-risk designation in the bill “is both ill-designed and wrongly targeted.”
His centre cares for over 30 per cent of Ontario’s NCR offenders.
“Paradoxically, we feel that public safety will actually be compromised by this bill,” said Simpson.
Dave Teixeira, a former professional wrestling promoter who is handling Galt’s communications, told the committee he was “shocked” by the testimony of experts who say the proposed bill stigmatizes the mentally ill.
He said the current system, which lumps together all NCR offenders — including killers such as Schoenborn and Manitoba’s Vincent Li — is more stigmatizing.
“This new bill says NCR people are not dangerous, however we need to get rid of the political correctness,” said Teixeira.
“There is a subsection of society that are dangerous and this legislation acknowledges that, and gives protection to society, gives the time to heal to victims, and allows the NCR accused to get the help they want.”