government urged to eliminate ‘homicidal’ punishment for welfare fraud
The jury presented its recommendations Thursday. It called for the Tory government to end its policy of punishing people convicted of welfare fraud with a lifetime ban from benefits
Since April 1, 2000, anyone convicted of welfare fraud in Ontario has been banned for life from collecting benefits.
The temporary ineligibility in the instances of welfare fraud that occurred before April 1, 2000 should also be eliminated, the jury recommended.
Lifetime social assistance bans for those convicted of welfare fraud is inappropriate and could lead to a similar death, said the jury.
The jurys rationale on abolishing the lifetime ban was reached as evidence indicates that this would have a devastating and detrimental effect on our society. To prevent anyone of having to go without food and/or shelter, to be deemed homeless and therefore and most importantly, to prevent the death of impoverished individuals.
After nine weeks of evidence from more than 40 witnesses, the jury deliberated for six days before making 14 recommendations to conclude an inquest into the death of Rogers, 40.
The jury concluded Rogers took her own life by overdosing on a lethal amount of anti-prescription pills, which she had stockpiled over several weeks after she was convicted.
Rogers was sentenced April 25, 2001 to six months of house arrest, 18 months probation and ordered to pay restitution after pleading guilty to collecting $13,5000 in welfare benefits while collecting $32,000 in student loans between 1996 and 1999.
Rogers suffered from chronic depression, migraines, panic attacks, insomnia and physical pain following 1997 knee surgery.
Her body was found in her Sudbury apartment the morning of Aug. 9, 2001 during a record heat wave. A pathologist testified she had been dead for two or three days.
She had her welfare benefits cut off for three months, but they were reinstated a month later by a Toronto judge.
At the time of her death Rogers was in the process of launching a court appeal stating cutting off welfare benefits to someone without any means of support was unconstitutional.
Other key jury recommendations included the government ensure anyone serving a custodial sentence of house arrest have adequate housing, food and medication and reviewing the adequacy of current social assistance rates.
The jury said rates should be based on actual costs within a particular community and data from local health units to acquire nutritional food each month and rent data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation be used in establishing more adequate rates.
Meryl Caetano, the mother of Rogers, praised the jury for its hard work and said its her hope the provincial government will abolish the lifetime bans in the near future.
I honestly think they will, she said. They have to do something because what happened is not called for.
Its painful to accept the jury believes her daughter committed suicide, but many people would have resorted to the same solution if facing similar circumstances, she said.
If it was me in the same situation, I would have damn well committed suicide, said Caetano.
The inquest revealed she and her daughter were not estranged and got along well. This brought her some comfort, she said.
We did get along, although thats not what so many people believed, she said. I was always going over to help her but she was 40 years old and had her own life.
I couldnt be with her 24 hours a day.
Its her hope the government will act on the jurys recommendations and prevent others from having to endure the hardship her daughter suffered through over the last few months of her life, said Caetano.
This could happen to anyone unless policy changes are implemented, she said.
Grace Kurke, the Sudbury lawyer who helped Rogers launch her court appeal, said she was pleased with the jurys recommendations. She is hopeful the government will abolish lifetime bans in the near future.
If not, it will continue to leave many people in very desperate circumstances, she said.
The government could change this legislation over night, said Kurke. Thats what Im hoping for.
The recommendation to base welfare benefits on market rates for rent and actual costs of food must also be adopted as quickly as possible, said Kurke.
Al OMarra, legal counsel for Ontarios coroners office at this inquest, said between 75 and 80 per cent of inquest jury recommendations are adopted into law and policy.
The jury recommendations will be forwarded to the chief coroner of Ontario and a detailed report on the implementation of the jurys recommendations will be made public one year from now.
Rogers sister Lynn told the jury, my sister did not deserve to die like this, and praised jury members and all those in the community who have shown so much support since her sisters death.
The jury also recommended:
- A provision be added to the Ontario Works Act allowing local administrators to exercise discretion in suspending Ontario Works benefits in instances that could be life threatening to the client and/or dependents.
- Physicians should be educated on the potential risks of certain drugs used to treat depression and should be encouraged to use safer class medications as a first line drug therapy. Wherever appropriate, physicians should encourage patients to assess supportive counselling services.
- Ontario Works should continue efforts to detect ineligibility or fraud at the earliest possible time in order that corrective measures may be taken short of prosecution.
- The government support formation of a committee established by local delivery agents for Ontario Works under the auspices of the Ontario Municipal Social Services Association composed of various stakeholders, including the Ministry of Community, Family & Childrens Services, Ontario Social Safety Network and Steering Committee on Social Assistance. The committees mandate would be to develop a model to be used throughout the province for the assessment of whether cases involving allegations of welfare fraud should be referred for prosecution. It could be based on an enhanced version of the Sudbury model and would include an evaluation of the life circumstances of the recipient and consequences of a conviction on both the recipient and dependents.
- Ontario Works drug benefits for treatment of medical conditions that threaten life or cause serious symptoms should not be discontinued during any welfare fraud suspension.
- Consideration be given to the creation of a computer access program such as British Columbias PharmaNet system. For example, by using a health card, pharmacies could access a patients drug dispensing records from other pharmacies and alert other pharmacies of a patients past attempts to utter forged prescriptions. Pharmacists should be required to notify the prescribing physician of any attempts by patients to alter a prescription.
- Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) should amend its application form by highlighting the possibility of criminal prosecution, future ineligibility and loss of loan forgiveness as a result of providing false declarations.
- Physicians should be encouraged to write out prescriptions in both digits and longhand to prevent modification of the quantity by patients.
- The government and pharmaceutical industry ensure information for both brand name drugs and generic drugs reflect the same information.
- The government ensure when a person is subject to a conditional sentence, as part of the prisoners orientation, probation and parole services provide a written list of community-based agencies which advocate on behalf of prisoners, together with an appropriate consent form to permit information sharing.
- The government ensure ongoing professional training and development of materials should be provided to all those involved in the investigation, charging, prosecution, sentencing and supervision in relation to all offences. The evidence showed the Crown and courts were unaware upon conviction the accused would be subject to a suspension of Ontario Works benefits, said the jury.
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