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The judge said this was the saddest story he had ever come across.

By SHAUNA ANDERSON

Warning: This post deals with a detailed description of the deaths of three children and themes of suicide. It may be distressing for some readers.

Three children murdered. A mother sentenced.
Three children murdered. A mother sentenced.

The two boys, three-year-old twins, were tucked up in bed, little cars and toys placed by their heads, the covers neatly tucked in, their arms almost translucent lying outside the quilt.

Their older sister, aged four, lay sweetly tucked in bed as well. Her favourite toys surrounding her, as if guards, protecting her from evil.

The boys mouths were open, their eyes wide. Lifeless.

The three children all dead.

Murdered by their own mother.

A prominent case in the UK has tested the limits of public compassion as details of the murders of Max and Ben Clarence and their big sister Olivia have filled newspaper headlines.

Their mother, Tania Clarence, aged 43, had admitted to manslaughter by diminished responsibility.

She had admitted taking a nappy and smothering her sons while they slept.

She had admitted how it was even more difficult to murder four-year-old Olivia.

She had admitted to planning the deaths to coincide with a weekend her husband and older daughter were in South Africa, even giving their Nanny the evening off in anticipation of the murders.

She admitted it all, just as she admitted how crippling it was to live a life caring for three children that Tania Clarence knew would die before her.

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Tania’s family life

Gary Clarence with Ben and Max
Gary Clarence with Ben and Max

The life of Tania Clarence was unraveled during her court case for the children’s murders. A life described as a “series of hard blows” by Allison Pearson in The Telegraph.

After the birth of her oldest daughter in 2006, Tania suffered several miscarriages before finally falling pregnant with Olivia in 2009.

Not long after she was pregnant again, giving birth to boy twins, Max and Ben prematurely at 26 weeks while the family was on holiday in Portugal in July 2010.

Four months of intensive care followed.

Devastatingly in this time Tania and her husband Gary found out that all three younger children – Olivia, Max and Ben had Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) Type 2, or “floppy baby” syndrome.

The genetic disorder causes the muscles to waste away over time, which can lead to skeletal deformities, such as abnormal curvature of the spine, and problems walking, eating, drinking and breathing.

Most children with SMA die by their early teens

The BBC reports that Tania and Gary – supported by over 60 medical professionals did their very best to give their family a quality of life that provided comfort and some happiness.

But Tania who suffered from depression and had a family history of suicide struggled with the fact that she believed her three children would die in their teenage years.

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The murders

In April this year, while her husband and older daughter were out of the county Tania Clarence took a nappy and smothered her two sons.

She then wrote her husband a letter before she killed her daughter and attempted to kill herself.

She wrote a letter to Gary before she killed Olivia.
She wrote a letter to Gary before she killed Olivia.

The court heard that she wrote a note for their nanny saying she had to kill the three children as her husband would not be able to cope with them on his own.

Allison Pearson writes, “It’s the kind of warped maternal logic – love gone mad – which makes perfect sense to someone who is mentally ill.”

Compassion

It is difficult to feel compassion for anyone who takes a life, but taking the life of a child is something we see as unforgivable. We are usually unflinching about that.

To show mercy in a case of maternal filicide is an uncomfortable shift in our thinking.

Mothers don’t kill their own children do they? Only a monster could.

But many feel that the only way to approach the deaths of Olivia, Ben and Max is with mercy and compassion for their mother, their murderer.

For there is no doubt that she killed them out of love and that her mind was crippled and stripped bare by depression.

But can society forgive that?

The sentence

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criminal court
The judge said it was the saddest story he had ever come across.

In sentencing Tania Clarence the judge said it was the saddest story he had ever come across.

“The prosecution accepts that you loved all four of your children – indeed, there is a substantial body of evidence that they were happy and well looked after – and that you were grief-stricken that Olivia, Max and Ben were destined to die early and before you.”

The mother who sobbed throughout most of the trail was overcome when the judge sentenced her in court.

He gave 43-year old Tania Clarence an indefinite hospital order, meaning she will not be released from hospital until she has recovered from her mental illness.

 Husband stands by his wife

Speaking after the trial Gary Clarence came out firmly in defence of his wife.

In a statement issued through his lawyers he said that “lessons need to be learned” from his wife’s story of “dedication and love” which turned to “despair and utter hopelessness”.

“Tania now faces further struggles and a future of coping with the past and understanding what happened and why.

“It is a future she will face with the support of her husband Gary who has stood by her throughout this tragedy.”

Reaction on social media

While the majority of social media support the sentence given to Tania Clarence there have been many vocal critics who feel that the portrayal of SMA Type 2 as a disease which kills teenagers is wrong.

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The BBC reports that one disabled advocate, Mark Womersley, who also has SMA type 2 says the use of the term “mercy killing” during the trial is concerning for disabled people in the future.

He is now 47 and says the charge of manslaughter did not fit the facts of the case as they came out during the trial.

Another, Katherine Araniello, who also has SMA wrote “This mother acknowledged and understood what she had done and appears to have planned to kill her children… so my overall feelings on this story are the terrifying moments those poor children had. I can relate to zero physical movement, not being able to wave my arms in protest, let out a scream, defend myself.”

 No winners

The Clarence's family home.
The Clarence’s family home.

This is one of those desperately shattering cases which leaves no winners. A family broken. A mother and father destroyed. A sister struggling to cope with what her mother has done and the loss of her family life.

An unimaginable tragedy.

The only thing to learn from this is just how crucial support is for families of disabled children and just how vital it is that mental illness be recognised, talked about and treated.

As Allison Pearson writes for The Telegraph, “One lesson is for the official experts in disabled children who think they know better than the parents who care for those children 24/7.

“The other lesson is that mental illness is every bit as serious as the physical kind and our society is more civilized for understanding that.”

If you are struggling and need help call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 

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