welfare fraudsters a break: jury
TORONTO - The Ontario government should abandon its controversial lifetime ban on welfare payments to people convicted of defrauding the system after the suicide of a depressed expectant mother on social assistance, a coroner's jury ruled yesterday.
A Sudbury, Ont., inquest into the Aug. 9, 2001, death of Kimberly Ann Rogers, 40, has concluded the Conservative government's policy of zero tolerance for those who commit welfare fraud contributed to the woman's fatal overdose of the antidepressant Amitrypaline.
"Evidence indicates that this would have a devastating and detrimental effect on our society. To prevent anyone [from] having to go without food and/or shelter, to be deemed homeless and ... to prevent the death of impoverished individuals," the jurors said in their rationale for urging an end to the ban.
Ms. Rogers, who was eight months pregnant and under house arrest after being convicted of defrauding welfare by getting a student loan to attend Cambrian College while also receiving social assistance, died in her sweltering apartment during a heat wave.
She was serving a six-month conditional sentence and had had her welfare benefits temporarily restored after appealing the lifetime ban. At the time of her death, Ms. Rogers, who graduated with honours in social work, had launched a constitutional challenge of Ontario's strict welfare laws.
"Kim did not deserve to die locked up like this, under house arrest," said Lynn Mayor, Ms. Rogers' sister, beside their mother, Myrel Caetano.
"Yes, she did maybe commit fraud, but she did confess and was prepared to face up to the courts. We never made it. She died trying to survive," said Ms. Mayor.
Ms. Caetano said she was encouraged by the jury's findings, but warned the Conservative government should take action to prevent similar tragedies.
"They better do something, because this is not called for," she said.
"It'll never be over for me, not when you lose a child even if they're 40 years old. You always expect you to go first, before your children."
In an indictment of the Common Sense Revolution of Mike Harris -- the former premier, who was elected in 1995 on promises of "breaking the cycle of dependency" and cracking down on welfare cheats -- the jury tabled 14 recommendations for sweeping improvements to social services.
Along with lifting the lifetime ban, the five-member panel urged the Conservatives to increase welfare payment rates, which were slashed by 21% in 1995 and have been frozen since, "to ensure that social assistance rates are adequate" and recommended annual adjustments to allow for inflation.
As well, the jury said the province should ensure that people under house arrest have adequate housing, food and medication and that doctors should have to use digits and longhand form of numbers when writing prescriptions to prevent patients from increasing the number of pills being prescribed.
Despite the recommendations, Brenda Elliott, the Minister of Community, Family and Children's Services, said the Conservatives have no plans to change government policy.
"This has been a very tragic situation. It's always terrible when somebody commits suicide. The coroner's jury's efforts have resulted in identifying many contributing factors. This has been a series of complex issues," Ms. Elliott said in an interview from her Guelph riding.
"We believe that ... welfare fraud is a crime. Fraud cannot be tolerated and it can't be tolerated because it robs not only those who support the system, but it cheats those who need the support," the Minister said.
As of this month, 106 people in Ontario have been banned for life from welfare benefits. There are 700,000 social-assistance recipients in the province.
"And so we will review all of the recommendations in detail, but at this time we are not contemplating changes to the policy of zero tolerance," said Ms. Elliott, who also rejected the jury's suggestion for an increase in welfare payments.
"At this time we are not contemplating changes to the rates," she said.
Nancy Vander Plaats, of the Ontario Social Safety NetWork, said Ms. Elliott's response was "pretty shocking" given the evidence at the eight-week inquest.
"It seems like she's ignoring a jury that sat there. Ms. Elliott didn't sit and listen to the evidence and hear the details of what Kim Rogers' life was like at the end. She didn't listen to the expert psychiatrist called by the coroner that said giving her house arrest plus cutting off all income was like a death sentence," said Ms. Vander Plaats.
"The crime Kim Rogers committed was attending school --[receiving] a post-secondary education while collecting welfare. You're not allowed to do that in this province."
Marilyn Churley, the NDP social services critic, said she was "surprised that the Minister ... has spoken up so quickly to say that they will not change the system after this thorough review by a jury."
"It's the first time that the government's punitive welfare policies have gone on trial," said Ms. Churley.
Leona Dombrowsky, the Liberal critic, expressed disappointment at the Conservatives' apparent unwillingness to amend a system that was changed for ideological reasons.
"One of the things the inquest has brought to us is that you can go too far and that's exactly what has happened here."
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