TORONTO - A controversial lifetime ban on Ontario welfare recipients who cheat the system has been lifted a year after a coroner's inquest into the death of a pregnant woman, Kimberly Rogers, recommended an end to the practice.
The decision by the new Liberal government to repeal the harsh measure imposed by the former Conservative regime immediately drew praise from social activists.
"I'm very happy. Social assistance is income of last resort; it's what you turn to when there's nothing else," said Jacquie Chic, a director at the Income Security Legal Clinic in Toronto.
"If you take that away, essentially you're deeming someone to be in a position where they can't get resources from anywhere."
The government's decision was actually made just before Christmas but will be formally enacted Saturday.
Social Services Minister Sandra Pupatello said the ban had been counterproductive. That's because welfare officials were often loathe to act against suspected fraud given the "punitive" consequences.
"We still have a zero-tolerance policy," Ms. Pupatello said in an interview from Windsor, Ont.
"Every single suspected fraud case must move forward, the police must be called."
Any overpayments will be docked from recipients' welfare cheques, she said.
In August 2001, 40-year-old Kimberly Rogers died in her apartment in Sudbury, Ont., while under house arrest for a conviction for welfare fraud.
Ms. Rogers, who was eight months pregnant, had been living on social assistance while receiving a student loan.
When she died, she'd received $13,000 in welfare payments that she wasn't entitled to.
A coroner's inquest ruled her death a suicide and made 14 recommendations, among them an end to lifetime bans on social assistance and an increase in welfare rates.
Welfare advocates had blasted the ban as cruel.
Critics said fraud has never been a huge problem in the welfare system, accounting for just a tiny fraction of the money spent.
During the election, Premier Daulton McGuinty called the zero-tolerance policy "regressive and not in keeping with a modern society."
He also promised to raise welfare rates, which the Tories cut 23 per cent in 1995.
Given the state of the province's books, it's not clear when that will happen but it won't be before the spring budget, Ms. Pupatello said.
"We're going to move as quickly as we can," she said.
"The rates aren't in keeping with what (recipients') needs are."
Currently, a single mother with one child receives $957 a month - an amount that leaves such families close to destitute, critics said.
"We need to see all of those (inquest) recommendations implemented, especially the recommendation regarding the increase in the rates," said Ms. Chic.
SUDBURY, ON -- In the weeks before her death, a pregnant Sudbury woman had stockpiled a large cache of the antidepressant medication on which she eventually overdosed.
A coroner's inquest heard yesterday that doctors told Kimberly Rogers, 40, to take six pills each day to control psychological and physical problems.
However, between May 22, 2001, and her death 10 weeks later in early August, she had acquired more than 1,300 units of the drug amitriptylene. When her body was found, empty pill bottles were recovered from her Sudbury apartment, but no pills.
If Ms. Rogers had used only the daily prescribed dosage of six pills, about 880 should have been unused, but none were found, said coroner's Crown counsel Al O'Marra. Mr. O'Marra told a coroner's inquest jury that evidence presented over the next five or six weeks will show that Ms. Rogers died from an overdose of amitriptylene.
At the time of her death, social activists and opposition politicians lashed out at Tory government policy regarding welfare fraud.
Ms. Rogers was found dead on Aug. 9, 2001. She had been sentenced to six months of house arrest after pleading guilty to theft over $5,000 for collecting $14,000 in welfare benefits while she had student loans.
Ms. Rogers, who was eight months pregnant when she died, suffered from depression for years, but also had migraine headaches, panic attacks, insomnia and physical pain from a knee injury, Mr. O'Marra told the jury.
Constable Steve Ross, an investigator from the Sudbury detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police, testified that documents he obtained indicate that Ms. Rogers visited numerous pharmacies to acquire amitriptylene for several months before her death.
She asked for and received prescriptions to increase the dosage starting May 22, Constable Ross said.
Ms. Rogers had gone to nine pharmacies for the drug, but went to the same outlet to acquire large amounts between late May and late July, he said.
In late May, she obtained 270 pills, another 540 on June 15 and 540 more during the last week of July, all from the same pharmacy, Constable Ross said.
Each pill bottle had doctors' instructions to take six pills before bed each night, he said.
Mr. O'Marra told reporters during a break in proceedings that amitriptylene is an antidepressant prescribed for people who are not necessarily depressed, but have other disorders such as migraine headaches. "There's a reasonable conclusion to be drawn" that Ms. Rogers had ingested all of the pills she had stockpiled, Mr. O'Marra said. It will be up to the jury to decide if she took her own life or accidentally overdosed, he said.
It's not uncommon for doctors to prescribe large amounts of pills to clients so they don't have to go out on a regular basis, but the doctors involved in this case will have to answer some tough questions, Mr. O'Marra said.
He told the three-woman, two-man inquest, led by presiding coroner Dr. David Eden, that he will show that Ms. Rogers and her unborn child were dead for two or three days before she was found.
The autopsy showed "a lethal concentration" of amitriptylene in her system, Mr. O'Marra said.
Ms. Rogers had been visiting Dr. Robert Clendenning in sudbury since 1996 for psychological ailments, Mr. O'Marra said.
If taken as prescribed, the drugs were safe for her and her unborn child, he said.
"Kimberly Rogers had many difficulties through her life," but she managed to return to Cambrian College in her late 30s and did quite well, he added.
SUDBURY, ON - OHIP billings and pharmacy records were put before the jury at the Kimberly Rogers inquest on Tuesday.
Rogers died in her Sudbury apartment in August 2001 while under house arrest for welfare fraud.
The first day of the proceedings focused on Rogers' troubling medical history.
The jury heard the first confirmation from an official source that Kimberly Rogers died of an overdose of anti-depressants.
Coroner's counsel Mark O'Mara said the toxicology report showed lethal concentrations of Amitriptyline in her system.
She was taking the drug for chronic depression, insomnia and migraine headaches.
The jury has yet to hear how Rogers was able to obtain so much of the medication.
In early May 2001, her doctor reported that she was doing well on the dosage he prescribed, but within a couple of weeks he increased her medication to the maximum dose.
Between late May and late July, drug stores dispensed more than 1,300 tablets to Rogers, enough to last several months.
None of the medication was found in her apartment when she died a couple of weeks after filling the last prescription.
Her doctors are set to testify later in her inquest.
Kimberly Rogers died a miserable, lonely death. We will know in the next few weeks whether she also died in vain.
Ms. Rogers was 40 years old and eight months pregnant when her body was found in her second-floor walkup in Sudbury during a record-setting heat wave in August, 2001.
Three months earlier, she had pleaded guilty to welfare fraud for continuing to collect benefits while receiving student loans.
As part of her sentence, she had been forbidden to leave what one supporter called her "hovel" except for a three-hour period each week, and she had been cut off the welfare rolls.
In death, Ms. Rogers was portrayed as a victim of the Mike Harris government, which had expertly exploited the feeling among many voters that welfare recipients had it soft.
The government's critics said she had been treated little better than a caged animal.
More than a year later, the feelings are still raw. Last August, for example, the National Post blared triumphantly that "the state did not kill Kimberly Rogers" when it reported that she had died of an overdose of an antidepressant drug and not heat prostration.
Coroner David Eden will step into the middle of the controversy today when he opens an inquest into Ms. Rogers' death. The inquiry, which is expected to last five weeks and hear from at least 35 witnesses, will range widely. It will probe not only the cause of the death but also the role the justice system played in it. It will also assess how she fared under a social- assistance system that did not give her enough money to live on.
Ms. Rogers drew $520 in monthly benefits -- the maximum entitlement for a single person -- during the time from 1996 to 2000 when she attended Cambrian College in Sudbury.
She paid $450 a month in rent, which left her $70 for other needs.
Her problem was that student loans are meant to cover living costs as well as tuition and books. In the fall of 1999, welfare officials discovered what they concluded was double-dipping and declared she had received an overpayment of $13,486.
Her benefits were docked 10 per cent each month to collect the overpayment, leaving her just $18 a month after rent. In April, 2001, now a Cambrian graduate but still unemployed, she pleaded guilty to fraud. She was sentenced to six months' house arrest and was automatically cut off from benefits for three months.
There are many people who are eager to show that this is not just ancient history and that the sins of the Harris era are still being perpetuated by the government of Premier Ernie Eves.
"It's still a Conservative government, and the new Premier doesn't represent a sea change," said Jacquie Chic, a lawyer for the Income Security Advocacy Centre, which is representing a coalition of groups granted standing at the inquest.
Indeed, Mr. Eves has been keen to present himself as a "fiscal conservative with a social conscience," but there is scant evidence to judge what he means by that.
I raised this in an interview last June. Twice, I asked whether he had plans to raise welfare benefits or the minimum wage, both of which were frozen throughout the Harris years. He was silent both times.
The inquest will be watched closely at Queen's Park. Brenda Elliott, the Minister of Community, Family and Children's Services, says it would be inappropriate for her to comment. But when she was asked if she felt that the current level of welfare benefits is on trial, she gave a hint that the Tories' get-tough attitude hasn't waned.
Ontario is sticking to its zero-tolerance policy on welfare fraud, she said.
"The principle holds true that citizens should not defraud other citizens of assets in the welfare system," Ms. Elliott said.
Government figures for the year 2000-01 show that just 430 of the estimated 500,000 people receiving social assistance were convicted of cheating the system. In another 17,800 cases, payments were reduced or stopped entirely after a review of eligibility.
Ms. Rogers got $13,000 more than she was entitled to. Did she deserve to die for this?
TORONTO - The Ontario government faces another court challenge to its strict policy on welfare fraud. Anyone convicted of defrauding the welfare system faces a lifetime ban on collecting social assistance. Tuesday, the Ontario Superior Court overturned the controversial "spouse-in-the-house" rule that cuts off welfare benefits for single parents living with a partner. The government is now being challenged on a different policy, one that bans those convicted of welfare fraud from receiving governement assistance in the future.
Advocates argue the policy is cruel and unusual treatment and violates the charter of rights.
News of the lawsuit comes one year after the death of the Kimberly Rogers, the pregnant woman who first challenged the government's policy, but died before the case was decided.
Rogers won a small victory. A judge ruled her welfare benefits could be reinstated while her legal challenge against the Harris government's welfare ban proceeded.
On Thursday, the issue will go to court again. Roger's lawyer is filing another charter challenge on behalf of three families convicted of welfare fraud.
TORONTO - The government says it will take a while before deciding whether to appeal this week's court defeat. The Ontario Court of Appeal threw out the provincial government's spouse-in-the-house rule. The rule cut off welfare benefits for single parents who were living with a partner.
Tuesday, the Minister of Community and Social Services said she needs more time to review the ruling before deciding whether to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
Brenda Elliott says she believes welfare funds should be directed to those most in need.
"If their situations were, for instance, someone living in a marital relationship [who] has the availability of funds from a partner, then it was our view that those funds could then be directed to someone else in need," says Elliott. "And that was why those kinds of regulations were put in place."
Elliott says other province's have adopted the same spouse-in-the-house rule as Ontario.