keep fighting system for Kim Rogers' sake
We thought we knew her.
All of us had labels summing up Kimberly Rogers' life: welfare cheat, loser, unwed mother-to-be. Suicide. We never heard her own voice or saw her eyes. We all — even the compassionate — had unspoken subtitles to the silent movie of her life, projected fuzzily to us in news stories: Guilty of welfare fraud. Sentenced to six months house arrest in a tiny Sudbury apartment. Then, on Aug. 9, 2001, found dead after a sizzling heat wave sent temperatures in her prison soaring to more than 40C.
But a more touchingly rounded picture of Kim Rogers began to emerge for those who actually attended the inquest into her death.
"Amazingly, you could see attitudesshifting," recalled Jacquie Chic, a lawyer for the Income Security Advocacy Centre in Toronto, who was there. "The jury and even her estranged family weren't sympathetic at first. They seemed to believe the government was right to force welfare rates so low. But as they heard the evidence of how cruel the system is, you could see the shock on their faces."
A working-class woman who struggled all her life against poverty, Kim fled an abusive relationship in Toronto to move home to Sudbury and start fresh.
"To me, she was a hero," Chic said. "She graduated from social services at Cambrian College with high praise for her work with handicapped children."
But how dumb a policy is this: You can't live on Ontario student loans, and yet you're a criminal if you get welfare at the same time. Kim was pregnant — and she needed welfare because, battling ill health, she couldn't work. In Ontario, while inflation leaped 15 per cent and rents by 26 per cent, welfare rates remained frozen for seven years at $520 a month for a single person.
When Kim pleaded guilty to having received $13,000 of welfare over three years, Judge Greg Rodgers ordered her into house arrest, with three hours a week to go out to shop. Shop? She had no income. Her welfare was automatically cut off. The judge was very righteous in denouncing her. "Welfare is there for people who need it," he said, "not for people who ... want things and who want money."
Right. Kim wanted "things" like food to eat while she prepared to give birth to a much-wanted child.
Bravely, although she dreaded the humiliation of public scrutiny and contempt, Kim launched a court Charter challenge of her six-month welfare ban. She told the court about running out of food, with no local agencies able to provide more. She was depressed, sleepless, frightened about her baby's future. I was heartstruck by a handwritten list of desired foods — yogurt, crackers, fresh veggies — that Kim Rogers gave her welfare worker. She titled it "foods I like." And she was so diffident, so self-denigrating, that she put the "I" in quotation marks, as though she had no right to use the first person pronoun.
Judge Gloria Epstein of the Superior Court heard her and denounced the welfare ban as "adversely affecting not only the mother and child, but also the public — its dignity, its human rights commitments and its health care resources."
But even after her welfare was ordered restored, Kim had only $18 left a month after rent and the student loan claw-back. Penned up in her stifling apartment, she was terrified to go outside, even into the backyard, lest authorities punish her by seizing her infant once it was born. (The eight-month fetus, a girl, died with Kim.)
What kind of people harden their hearts so brutishly that it seems a splendid idea to let people starve and despair in the midst of plenty?
The Ontario Tories don't stint themselves. And they don't exercise "zero tolerance" for their own self-indulgent spending. In their first six years in pig heaven, Tory MPPs charged the public purse for lavish steak dinners, fancy hotels, movies, trips to Las Vegas — $2 million total in expenses. One minister was sent to the back benches. Not exactly starvation and death.
Most Ontarians aren't as withered of conscience as their elected members. The Kim Rogers jury, sobered and saddened by the evidence, asked Ontario to raise welfare rates and end the cruelty of "zero tolerance." So far, 15 cities have echoed the demand.
Social Services Minister Brenda Elliott, a former teacher and entrepreneur, was unmoved. She instantly retorted that "zero tolerance" and the lifetime welfare ban "work" and will not be changed.
Ms Elliot has a strange cabinet record. As environment minister, she boasted of taking chauffeured limos instead of the bus for brief trips to the Legislature. She went to the Walkerton inquiry and refused to take responsibility for those deadly decisions in her ministry. ("We're a team.") She hangs tough on refusing treatment for autistic children over the age of 6.
She is especially contemptuous on the subject of Kim Rogers' lonely, anguished death. The minister says she is very satisfied that the "numbers on welfare continue to drop."
Let's put the screws to these callous MPPs even before the coming election. Join the campaign to phone the compassion-challenged minister at 416-325-5225 and insist that she raise the welfare rates to a living level.
This activism will be the only decent farewell we can offer to Kim Rogers.
column appears Saturday in the Life section and Sunday in the A section.