Inquest to probe house-arrest death
The short street where Kim Rogers lived and died in destitution is a mix of warehouses and run-down old homes just south of the courthouse where an inquest into her death begins today.
The 40-year-old woman lived for three years on the top floor of a red brick house across the road from a parking lot. When she moved in, the west-facing window might have seemed like a bonus, flooding the small bedroom with bright light.
But by August, 2000, she was eight months pregnant. As temperatures soared to 30C and the sun's unforgiving rays bounced off the unshaded street, she must have longed each day for the respite of nightfall.
Because this apartment its living room with a view of a wall, its narrow kitchen with a peeling gray linoleum and rusting appliances, its tiny bathroom windowless was her prison.
In April, she was put under house arrest after pleading guilty to defrauding the welfare system of $13,000, which she drew in 1996-99 while also collecting $49,000 in student loans.
A few years earlier, this would not have been considered an offence.
"The whole concept of being on welfare and getting a student loan that didn't used to be illegal until this government came in," said Janet Gasparini, executive director of the Sudbury Social Planning Council. "There are many success stories that came out of people who did what she did."
By 1996, it was a crime.
"I'm very sorry it happened," Rogers said as she pleaded guilty in the Ontario Court of Justice on April 25, 2001. Mr. Justice Greg Rodgers sternly pointed out that she had engaged in "almost four years of deception and dishonesty."
"I am satisfied you did not lead an opulent lifestyle, even with these two sources of income, but welfare is there for people who need it, not for people who want it, who want things and who want money."
Rodgers sentenced her to a jail term in her home of six months, followed by 18 months probation. She would be allowed to leave for medical or religious reasons, to report to a supervisor, and to shop for the necessities of life, to be done only on Wednesdays between 9 a.m. and noon.
Rogers was also ordered her to pay back the full amount to the Ontario Works program, which was already "clawing back" $52 a month from her $520 monthly cheque.
But the criminal conviction triggered an automatic three-month suspension of benefits, a penalty introduced by the Harris government and subsequently stiffened in April, 2000, when a "zero-tolerance policy on welfare cheats" raised the penalty to lifetime suspension.
These are among the policies that will go under the microscope at the five-week inquest, presided over by coroner David Eden.
"We cannot live in a society where we say at some point we would stop supporting people," said Gasparini, whose organization has been granted standing but denied legal aid.
Janet Gasparini, Sudbury Social Planning Council
The Social Planning Council has been told to piggy-back on the resources of two national coalitions with standing one headed by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, the other by the Ontario Social Safety Network. Gasparini said her organization offers the only community perspective and should have been granted separate legal representation.
"Two government ministries, the municipality and the police department will all be represented by lawyers paid with taxpayers' dollars," she said. "It's imperative to have a local voice to tell about the impact of these policies."
Rogers' family has chosen not to participate. Her mother, Meryl Caetano, said she knows she's going to be upset by the public airing of personal details of her daughter's life.
"To me, she's my daughter and I loved her," she said.
Still, she said, she can't argue with the need to examine what led to Rogers' death. "I think it should be taken seriously. These things shouldn't happen to anyone."
Reports on the physical cause of death will be among the first evidence to be led by coroner's counsel Al O'Marra. It points to a suicide, sources told The Star soon after the tragedy.
Rogers had attempted suicide before, in 1996, before enrolling at Cambrian College, from which she graduated in 2000 with a social services diploma. Her most recent employment was with a call centre, chasing people who had defaulted on their long-distance charges a job she quit in January, 2001, because of the stress of dealing with abusive customers.
By early May, Rogers had no food. The local food bank would allow only one visit a month, and she had been there just before Easter. She was behind on her $450 monthly rent, and her drug card had been suspended so she could not obtain medication prescribed for depression and nausea.
"I am unable to sleep because of my situation," she said in a May 23 affidavit. "I am very upset and I cry all the time."
Some responded. Her landlord agreed to reduce her rent to $300 a month until her circumstances improved. The estranged father of her unborn child came up with a "one-time" payment of $300 for her rent. Friends gave her food.
Workers for the Elizabeth Fry Society and the Social Planning Council scrounged for help, with limited success. Her family doctor intervened to get her drug card reinstated.
Toronto lawyer Sean Dewart launched a constitutional appeal on her behalf and persuaded Madam Justice Gloria Epstein to reinstate her benefits in the interim.
In a May 31 ruling, Epstein found that "for a member of our community carrying an unborn child" to be homeless and deprived of basic sustenance is a situation that would adversely affect the public "its dignity, its human rights commitments and its health care resources."
Rogers still had five months of house detention. She would last only two. Residents of a downstairs apartment said she had been dead several days when her body was found Aug. 9 in her bed, a little more than a month before her baby was due.
Last week, neighbours said they felt the treatment she received was harsh.
"She would have been better off in jail," said Mary Lou Fabbro, owner of a nearby stained-glass business.
The death reflects poorly on our society, she said. "We need to take care of each other."