Jury urges Ontario to ease crackdown on welfare cheats

Coroner's jury urges Ontario to ease crackdown on welfare cheaters, saying more people may commit suicide unless rules are relaxed

Unless Ontario ends its harsh, zero-tolerance approach to welfare fraud more people may die, a coroner's jury recommended Thursday.

But the provincial government immediately rejected the recommendation, saying its policy of imposing lifetime bans on benefits to discourage welfare cheats is working.

The jury investigated the suicide of Kimberly Rogers. She was 40, eight months' pregnant and confined to her apartment for welfare fraud when she took a lethal overdose of an anti-depressant during a heat wave in August, 2001.

The circumstances of her death sparked outrage at the time. Activists blamed the Ontario government's program to go after people who cheat the welfare system.

But Ontario has no plans to change the current system, Community Services Minister Brenda Elliott said.

The government will not tolerate welfare fraud and "is not contemplating changes to the zero-tolerance policy," she told reporters.

The jury found that Rogers committed suicide and recommended Ontario lift its lifetime ban on welfare benefits for anyone convicted of welfare fraud.

The suggestion brought cheers from the gallery.

The jury also recommended that:

  • anyone serving a conditional sentence and confined to their home, as Rogers was, should be provided with adequate food, housing and medication;
  • Ontario work to detect welfare fraud and overpayments more quickly, so it can avoid prosecutions.
The government should now reconsider its welfare rates, which don't provide enough money to cover the necessities of life, said Nancy Vander Plaats of the Ontario Social Safety Network.

Rogers' mother, Myrel Caetano, said the government should pay attention to the recommendations.

Coroner's counsel Al O'Marra said Rogers was required to stay in her apartment and pay rent and buy food, yet had no income.

Vander Plaats said the welfare system forced her to depend on charity for her food and phone, and that contributed to her suicide.