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Inquest into welfare mother's death begins (Globe & Mail, Oct 2002) click here
Bleak House (Globe & Mail, Aug 2001) click here
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The inquest into the death of Kimberly Rogers — found dead in her sweltering apartment during a heat wave on Aug. 11, 2001 — began Tuesday morning in Sudbury, Ont. Ms. Rogers had been serving six months under house arrest for welfare fraud. She was eight months pregnant at the time of her death. The official cause of her death has never been released.Before the inquest, Coroner Dr. David Eden granted public-interest standing to the Ontario Social Safety Network (OSSN) and the Steering Committee on Social Assistance. Both groups are represented by the Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC).
"We extend condolences to the family and friends of Kimberly Rogers. We know the next six weeks will be a difficult time for them," ISAC legal director Jacquie Chic said. "We believe it is vitally important that the jury has the opportunity to examine all the issues and factors relating to the tragedy of Kimberly Rogers' death last August."
OSSN spokeswoman Barbara Anello said she hopes the inquest "sheds light on the dangers of cutting the social safety net and imposing discriminatory penalties on vulnerable people like Kimberly Rogers."
A straight-A social-services student at Cambrian College, Ms. Rogers had pleaded guilty to defrauding the provincial government by taking student loans while still collecting welfare cheques. Her welfare benefits were cut off and she was ordered to repay the government about $13,300. The ruling left her unable to pay her monthly bills. A published newspaper report in August said that Ms. Rogers died of an overdose of a prescription antidepressant, not heat stroke or hyperthermia from being confined to her apartment. The National Anti-Poverty Organization says the results of the inquest will have far-reaching impacts.
"Issues and recommendations emerging from this case are poised to have profound impact on the struggle for strengthened social safety nets, on economic justice, on public policy, on the anti-poverty movement," NAPO said in a release. "How we challenge governments on a myriad of issues — the decimation of income support programs, systemic obstacles to achieving economic and social justice, federal abandonment of responsibility, flaws in conditional sentencing schemes, the fallacy of welfare fraud — will be impacted by this case."
On May 14, 2001, Ms. Rogers launched a case under the Charter of Rights that challenged the constitutional validity of Ontario Works regulations that suspended benefits after a conviction of welfare fraud. Ms. Rogers' was able to have her welfare benefits reinstated May 31, but the court had yet to rule on her challenge at the time of her death.
SUDBURY, ONT. -- 'I ran out of food this weekend. I am unable to sleep. . . . I am very upset and I cry all the time.' Kimberly Rogers wrote these words in her court appeal in May. Three months later, 40 years old and eight months pregnant, she was found dead in the Sudbury, Ont., apartment where she had been confined 24 hours a day for the crime of taking student loans while on welfare. It's a 21st-century Dickens story There's not much to look at out the narrow second-floor window of 286 Hazel St. in downtown Sudbury. The back yard is a grey gravel driveway strewn with litter. There's a rusted black Ford that looks as though it's been up on blocks for a decade, and a yellowed dishwasher that someone discarded years ago. And overlooking it is the ramshackle two-storey, five-tenant apartment building where Kimberly Rogers, perhaps Ontario's best-known welfare recipient, spent almost every hour of the past three months, after a judge ordered her confined to her home for all but three hours a week. This is where the 40-year-old expecting mother and straight-A recent college graduate spent her last days, before she died last week of unknown causes. Her body wasn't found for two days. Some speculate that it was suicide. Others angrily reject that idea.Eight months pregnant, she was trapped inside her sweltering apartment for the duration of a record-setting heat wave. Temperatures were above 30 degrees for six days in a row the week she died. "It was like a sauna in there," Amanda Chodura of Sudbury's Elizabeth Fry Society, who frequently visited with Rogers, told The Globe and Mail.
Rogers's crime was one only a poor person could be convicted of: She pleaded guilty in April to receiving student loans while on social assistance. The size of the loans -- $49,000 over four years -- would have made her ineligible for welfare had she reported them. Her punishment, some say, was straight out of a 19th-century Charles Dickens novel: She was kicked off the welfare rolls and ordered to repay $62,000 (the loan, plus the size of her social-assistance overpayment) despite having no source of income and little opportunity to work, or even look for work, during her sentence. The judge, Greg Rodgers, ordered her to serve six months of house arrest. She avoided eviction only through the grace of her landlord, and often relied on charity to pay for the prescription medication that kept her chronic depression under control.In a written affidavit submitted to the court hearing her case, Rogers described a life that spiralled downward as she was cut off from the outside world: "I have no one to turn to for money or a home if I am evicted," she said. "If I were evicted, I would have to go to a shelter. I would have no money to pay for storage of my belongings, and fear that I could lose everything." She worried about where every meal would come from, and feared for the future of her unborn child.
To some, Rogers's was an unfortunate life that met an unfortunate but blameless end. To others, her death was the fault of a society -- many specifically name the provincial government -- that no longer cares for its own. Ontario, under Progressive Conservative Premier Mike Harris, is the first province to impose such harsh penalties for welfare fraud: It not only metes out punishment but cuts off all benefits, and bars those convicted from receiving welfare ever again. "You have to look at the way we've criminalized welfare recipients, the way we stigmatize them," said Toronto lawyer Sean Dewart, who represented Rogers in her constitutional challenge of the Ontario law.The case brought her to national attention earlier this year. Even when her benefits were reinstated, the money was absurdly tight. As a single person, she was entitled to receive $520 a month from Ontario Works. However, because of her previous overpayment, that was clawed down to $468 a month. Her rent, when she paid it in full, ate up $450 of that. "It doesn't matter how frugal you are. No one can stretch $18 for a whole month," said Grace Kurke, a legal-aid lawyer who befriended Rogers. Dewart said his client's death illustrates the anonymity and gruelling poverty in which many of Canada's 2.1 million welfare recipients live. He contended that she would have been better off if she had committed a violent crime and been sent to prison. Child killer Karla Homolka has gotten better treatment, he said. "If sentenced to jail, she would have had the necessities of life, she would have had access to medications. If something had happened to her, it wouldn't have been two days before her body was found."
"I ran out of food this weekend," read Kim Rogers's affidavit in her plea to a judge to relax the restraints on her. "I am unable to sleep because of my situation, I am very upset and I cry all the time." Those who visited Rogers during her house arrest remember a defiant woman living in deteriorating conditions. The apartment was always bare, the fridge always empty. There was a small television, without cable. Her bookshelves were cluttered with books from college courses and biographies of her heroine, the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Food banks kept Rogers from starving, but they were eternally short on fruit, vegetables and dairy products, essential foods for a mother-to-be. In the affidavit, dated May 13, she laid out her situation: She was estranged from her family, she said, and her mother had rejected pleas for financial help. The biological father of her unborn child, whom she described as verbally abusive, had contributed only a $300 payment, on the condition that she never ask for help again. Few aid organizations could or would help someone convicted of welfare fraud, she said.Ten days later, in a second affidavit, she said things were sliding even further out of control. She couldn't get the money to pay her rent. Her chronic depression was causing attacks of anxiety, insomnia and migraine headaches. In a submission in her court case, her doctor, Robert Clendenning, testified that the suspension of benefits "will in all likelihood have grave and lasting consequences for both Rogers and her fetus." Kurke said her client usually spent the three hours she was allowed to leave her home every Wednesday visiting her doctors and lawyers. Although the time was formally set aside to allow her to "shop for necessities," Rogers simply didn't have the money to do even that. Friends say she kept her spirits up by thinking ahead to the birth of her child. She had already collected, through donations, a crib and a carriage, which she gave a prominent place in her home. Her baby, which she told confidantes was to be a boy, was due next month and she loved showing off to guests the two ultrasound pictures. She was trying hard to choose the right name for her son. "Kim always tried to be cheery. . . . She'd survived through a lot in her life and managed to stay positive and that's why she was so willing to listen to my problems and lend me some good advice," said Dave Grainge, 33, who spent six years living in the same building.
Rogers was also proud of having returned to school. She graduated with high marks from the social work program at the local community college this past spring, Grainge said. He lamented that she barely had time -- about a week -- to celebrate that accomplishment before her fraud conviction. Although a coroner has already ruled out heat stroke as a cause of death, Rogers's neighbours can't help but think that the sweltering heat played a role. Grainge said the thermometer in his apartment remained above 30 for six days last week, and Rogers's top-floor apartment was always several degrees hotter than his own. "Making someone stay inside during the hottest days of the summer, it's just not right," he said.Born in Sudbury in 1961, Kimberly Rogers was raised by her mother, Myrel, and her stepfather, Daniel Caetano. A working-class family in a working-class town, the household included three other sisters and a stepbrother. At 19, she packed up, as so many young people in this fading mining centre do, and headed for Toronto. There she worked a satchel of odd jobs -- receptionist, waitress, bartender. She would have stayed in Toronto, but she got involved in an abusive relationship and wound up fleeing back home. She returned to Sudbury in 1995. By now estranged from her mother, she ended up on the social-assistance rolls. In 1996, she hit bottom and attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. She recovered and, at the age of 35, decided to try to turn her life around. She enrolled in Cambrian College, first in a law-enforcement program, then, after a leg injury left her unable to complete that course's physical requirements, social work. Always a hard worker, she surprised even herself with her academic success.
"She was a such an ambitious student . . . very thorough in her work and very supportive of others, which made her extremely popular with her classmates," said Lynn Chetwynd, who taught Rogers communications in her social-services course at Cambrian the past two years. "She was an outstanding student who graduated near the top of her class. . . . Of my 90 students last year, she was on par with the very best." Another Cambrian official said Rogers was "a great student," with a grade-point average near 3.5 (over 90 per cent) when she graduated. While still in school, she did work placements at the Canadian Mental Health Association and another social-care centre. She seemed on track to eventually achieve her goal of helping those hit by the double whammy of medical disabilities and financial strain, just like herself. She could never have done it on welfare alone. After rent, her benefits left her only about $70 a month. Tuition had risen to $2,250 a year by her final year at college, not to mention books, transportation and general living expenses. With student loans, though, she could scrape by.Then the province launched an investigation of her welfare claims. After graduation, she had landed a job at a call centre, collecting money from people who had defaulted on their long-distance phone bills. But despite the fact the jobs were relatively well-paying, she couldn't cope with the combined stress of the fraud case and the often-angry customers she had to harass for payments. "I remember telling her she was crazy for quitting the one job," said Orson Todd, her landlord of six years. "She was making $13 an hour, and you just don't find those kind of jobs around Sudbury unless you work for [nickel miners] Inco or Falconbridge."
She likely would have had to resign anyway when she was sentenced to the house arrest, but by quitting early she left herself with no savings. Todd said she was frequently short on the rent, and he had to "cover" her for a cumulative $2,000 over the years.
Despite his frustrations, Todd -- who described himself as a person with little sympathy for welfare cheats -- found he couldn't say no when Rogers needed help. He described her as "a real personable person," and said he couldn't stop crying the night he found out that she had died. "What she did wasn't right, and no one held a gun to her head to make her do what she did," he said. "But to punish her and her baby by making her stay inside her apartment in the middle of summer is a little bit crazy." Chetwynd called the government's treatment of her former student "inhumane." "I think what's happened in this matter is just appalling," she said. "Two lives have been lost because of what I honestly believe to be immoral provincial policy. I hope this is a real heads-up for what this government is allowing to happen to its citizens." The fraud case against Rogers was open-and-shut, and she knew it.She pleaded guilty and braced for the consequences. According to statements she made later, however, she had not been told before entering her plea that she would be automatically suspended from the welfare rolls. A month later, she launched a challenge of not only that suspension, but also the constitutionality of the law itself. The lifetime ban, she and her lawyers argued, was equivalent to cruel and unusual punishment, and thereby contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Her court action and her plight made headlines in the national media, and those around her say she started to draw strength from the fight. In late May, in a precedent-setting decision, a judge granted an injunction that allowed Rogers back onto the welfare rolls, with retroactive payments for the time she missed. "When she heard about the decision, her words were 'Right on,' " remembered her lawyer and friend, Kurke. "She was intent on making sure the government realized how wrong it was to treat people this way." Rather than let her lawyers do everything on her behalf, Rogers insisted that she be kept in the loop, asking for copies of all the court documents, even the case law, so she could read them herself. She was trying to find a way to make it to Toronto in September for the next stage in the court fight, intent on being there through every stage of the Charter challenge, even though she would have an infant in tow by then. The boost she got from the court success, however, did little to ease her situation. She was still locked in her home, pregnant and battling depression, with no assets, income or food in her fridge.
Still, no one knew the crisis was dire enough to kill her. She died on Aug. 9, and by the time her body was found, the heat had decomposed it to the point that the coroner's office will need six to eight weeks before it can determine the cause of death. So far, it has only been able to rule out heat stroke. In horrified Sudbury, nearly everybody has a theory about what killed Rogers. Many insistently blame the combination of the heat wave and her lack of food and water. Some believe that her baby died in utero, perhaps of malnutrition, thereby poisoning the mother. Others speculate that she attempted suicide again, this time successfully. But those who knew her dismiss the suggestion, saying she had been in fine spirits in the past week. She had even reconciled with her mother after years of acrimony, using her last three-hour leave from her home to spend time with her. Many believe that, regardless of the details, she was first and foremost a victim of the Ontario government's targeting of welfare recipients. In a brief interview, Rogers's mother, Myrel, made it clear that she is among those who believe the province is to blame. "This is a tragic, tragic way for not only my daughter, but for anyone's son or daughter, to die," she said. "Of course, it's Mike Harris's fault," she added. "It's his law. It's his stupidity." Myrel refused to comment on all other aspects of her daughter's life, or on why the two were estranged for so long. "I think enough has been said," she said several times. Harold Duff, director of the Sudbury office of Ontario Works, agreed something went wrong in Rogers's case. Without directly pointing the finger at his political masters, the Harris Conservatives, he said the changes they made to the welfare system in 1997 created an atmosphere where more people simply slip through the cracks.Duff said the depths of Rogers's troubles weren't known to his office, because home visits that might have detected the looming crisis were eliminated when the government decreed that the emphasis be shifted from caring for the poor to getting them back to work. "The focus is now on employment," he said. "We're not really into the social-service side any more." That focus, Duff believes, has been good for most people his office has dealt with -- the number of people on the welfare rolls in Ontario has sharply declined since 1997 -- but has been severely problematic for many of the 550,000 who continue to rely on welfare in the province. No matter how good the system is, he said, there will always be people it simply doesn't fit. He said staff in the Sudbury office did all they could for Rogers, "but municipalities simply have to follow the provincial government's lead." Ontario Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty and several other politicians have called for a full inquest. Social Services Minister John Baird has said he cannot comment on the case, which he calls "a regrettable occurrence," or the need for an inquest until the coroner finishes his work.
Amanda Chodura, of the Elizabeth Fry Society, spent five months working on Rogers's case, and said it was one of the most tragic she has ever witnessed. She, too, believes the system failed Kimberly Rogers. "I got to know Kimberly very well the past few months and she was not a criminal. . . . The word 'persecution' isn't strong enough to call what happened to her," she said. "This tragic case is a symptom of a government putting policies into practice without doing any research. What transpired was she and her child were placed in a dangerous situation. This should never have happened. Two lives are over." And people at all levels are wishing they had paid closer attention to Kim Rogers's second affidavit in May. "I still have no money to pay next months' rent, and I am under considerable stress," she wrote. "I do not know whether or not I will receive the help I need, and currently live one day at a time. Emotionally, I am doing worse, and I worry all the time about how I am going to care for this child inside of me."She was right to worry. Almost no one else did, until it was too late.
OTHER RELATED INFORMATION AND ARTICLES:
Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies
Justice With Dignity: Remember Kimberly Rogers (PDF)
Welfare Reform in Ontario
We've learned little from Kimberly Rogers's death
Income Assistance After the Cuts
A summary of the occupation