ban ‘a death sentence’
Sudbury - Fridays session of the coroners inquest into the death of Kimberly Rogers saw an exasperated coroner, Dr. David Eden, verbally dress-down witness Margaret Little and lawyer Jacquie Chic for offering prejudicial testimony to the jury.
Eden said Littles remarks about the prevalence of income tax fraud was a gross flouting of a previous ruling he made that income tax fraud was not a relevant issue for the inquest.
Rogers, 40, died in her apartment during a heat wave in August 2001 from an overdose of anti-depressants. At the time of her death she was eight months pregnant and under house arrest for welfare fraud.
A professor of political science and womens studies at Queens University in Kingston and the last witness the inquest, Little at times wandered off-topic into areas of questionable relevance during her two days of testimony, more than once prompting Eden to excuse the jury and remind Little to answer the questions that were posed to her.
Little testified that welfare recipients feel like second-class citizens, and often do not seek out necessary medical care or other entitlements because they feel unworthy and ashamed of their situations.
Many young women on welfare actually have full sets of dentures, as they are only able to obtain emergency dental care, which involves removing, rather than fixing teeth, she said.
She added that recipients often dont enjoy dealing with charities, such as the Salvation Army, since they must put up with doing prayers and hymns and being saved, in order to obtain a hot meal.
The Queens professor noted that most new jobs require some form of post-secondary education, and without such training, women are completely left out of the job market with few hopes of getting off welfare.
She complained that the programs and workshops offered by Ontario Works do not provide much real assistance and operate on the assumption that people on welfare dont want work, she said. Thats not been my impression at all.
Rogers was convicted of welfare fraud for collecting benefits while going to school and accepting loans from the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP).
On the verge of making it
Little said Rogers was on the verge of making it off welfare, and suggested loans should be removed from Ontario Works definition of income.
We have to make sure education isnt a crime, said Little.
One of the jurors asked Little if raising welfare benefits might discourage recipients from looking for work, while another juror asked if it would be fair to working low-income people if the welfare system subsidized welfare recipients while they attend post-secondary institutions.
Little replied there is such a stigma attached to collecting welfare benefits that she could not see how raising rates would have any impact on the desire to work. She suggested the OSAP system could be made fairer to both welfare recipients and the working poor if it included many substantial bursaries for people who wish to get an education.
During cross-examination, lawyer Martin James of the City of Greater Sudbury mentioned a case of welfare fraud involving an individual who had obtained $56,000 in unearned benefits, and asked Little several times if such cases should be criminally prosecuted.
Little replied she is opposed to prosecuting cases of welfare fraud because they usually involve small amounts of money taken out of necessity, and she is unaware of any significant case of welfare fraud.
She added that any ban from assistance, whether temporary or permanent, amounts to a death sentence for individuals. Bans should not be used as punishment for welfare fraud, she said, unless we think poor people shouldnt be alive.
The inquest resumes at the Sudbury Court House Wednesday and Thursday for closing arguments and submissions.
Its findings and recommendations will be released on Dec. 19 at Tom Davies Square.