welfare bans: jury
Sudbury - The Ontario governments zero tolerance welfare crackdown has had a "devastating and detrimental effect on our society," and should be eliminated, a coroners jury ruled Thursday. Senior government officials, however, have defended the policy, and indicated they do not intend to change the law.
The five-member panel found that Kimberly Rogers deliberately took her own life with an overdose of antidepressants last year while serving a six-month conditional sentence for welfare fraud in her West End apartment.
"Kim did not deserve to die locked up like this, under house arrest," her sister, Lynn Mayor, said as she read a statement with her mother, Myrel Caetano, before the verdict was read.
"Yes, she did maybe commit fraud, but she did confess and was prepared to face up to the courts."
The family had been considering moving to Toronto to carry on with a constitutional challenge of Ontarios strict new welfare laws before Rogers died, Mayor said.
"We never made it," she sobbed. "She died trying to survive."
The recommendation, while cheered by the 50 or so onlookers who gathered at Tom Davies Square for the verdict, did not molify Rogers family.
"If they can help others, then thats a good thing, but Im not sure they would have been able to help Kim," Caetano said.
For the Social Planning Council of Sudbury, however, the condemnation of the welfare ban was exactly what was needed.
"Were extremely pleased," said Janet Gasparini, the councils executive director. "One of the main goals was to defeat this legislation, and it happened.
"Its unfortunate it happened because of the death of Kimberly, but at least it wasnt in vain."
Community Services Minister Brenda Elliott said shed review the recommendations, but staunchly defended the governments policies.
We think the welfare reforms are working, she said from Guelph, Ont.
We are not contemplating changes to the policy of zero tolerance.
The conclusion that she committed suicide was a surprise to many. The jury was not obligated to determine a means of death, only a cause. It could have found that the lethal dosage of Amitriptyline found in her system had been ingested accidentally, said Legal Aid lawyer Grace Kurke.
Indeed, while she had displayed suicidal tendencies in the past, evidence presented at the inquest suggested that Rogers was in an improving frame of mind at the time of her death.
"I still have a lot of doubts," Kurke, who worked with Rogers on the charter appeal, said. "I know a lot of us will always have doubts about this."
After the verdict, Caetano confided she had believed all along that her daughter took her own life.
During the investigation, "the coroner asked me about that, and I said, if I was locked up in an apartment like that, I would have taken my life," she said. "And she was my daughter, so no, I dont think it was surprising."
Rogers, 40, was eight months pregnant when she died. Her welfare benefits had been suspended temporarily, but the effect caused Rogers great hardship, the jury ruled.
In all, the jury handed down 14 recommendations aimed directly at a government long assailed by social activists for what many consider a lack of compassion for the provinces less fortunate.
"Evidence indicates that this (ban) would have a devastating and detrimental effect on our society," coroner Dr. David Eden said as he read the jurys rationale for lifting the lifetime ban.
Doing so would hopefully "prevent anyone from having to go without food and/or shelter, to be deemed homeless and therefore and most importantly to prevent the death of impoverished individuals."
The jury also recommended an end to temporary bans for anyone convicted of fraud before April 2000, and a provision in the law that would give welfare administrators the authority to use discretion when deciding whether to cut off a recipients benefits.
Coroners counsel Al OMarra said the recommendations reflect the evidence heard during the eight-week inquest: that Rogers still had to live her life, even though her only source of income was cut off.
"She was without any resources, any income," OMarra said. "And yet, (she was) required to remain in a residence that required the payment of rent and the purchase of food."
with files from CP