BY DIANE GILHULA
A Sudbury lawyer who went out of her way to assist Kimberly Rogers while she was under house arrest for welfare fraud, tearfully told a coroner?s inquest Friday about the last time she saw Rogers alive.
Grace Kurke, a lawyer at the Sudbury Legal Aid Clinic, testified she visited Rogers on July 20, 2001 to drop off a birthday card and some groceries.
Kurke testified she found Rogers to be in good spirits, but obviously disliking the extreme heat of her apartment as Sudbury was in the midst of a crippling heat wave.
The inquest has heard the temperature inside Rogers? apartment when her body was found on August 9 was 34 Celsius (93 Fahrenheit).
Rogers, 40, died in her apartment during a heat wave in August of 2001 while under house arrest, while serving a six-month conditional sentence for welfare fraud.
The inquest has heard she was eight months pregnant when her body was found in her sweltering apartment. Rogers suffered from chronic depression, migraine headaches, panic attacks and insomnia.
She died from an overdose of the anti-depressant amitriptyline.
She pleaded guilty to one count of theft over $5,000 after admitting to collecting $13,500 in welfare benefits while on student loans. She collected $32,000 in student loans between the fall of 1996 and fall of 1999.
She graduated near the top of her class in social work in May of 2000.
The inquest jury is expected to answer whether Rogers took her own life or overdosed accidentally.
Kurke testified she first met Rogers by chance in early May, 2001.
It was only through coincidence she met Rogers because Kurke was filling in for a community legal aid worker who was ill.
Kurke ended up turning over the file to the clinic director, who ultimately gave it back to Kurke to assist Rogers in appealing a three-month welfare ban imposed by the provincial government.
Anyone convicted of welfare fraud over $5,000 was automatically cut off by the Tories from collecting welfare benefits for three months.
The inquest has heard that since April 2001, anyone convicted of welfare fraud is banned for life from collecting benefits .
Criminal law was outside Kurke?s expertise, but she arranged for Rogers to meet Toronto constitutional lawyer Sean Dewart, who successfully convinced a Toronto judge to reinstate welfare benefits for Rogers one month after her conviction.
Kurke also got several community agencies involved to assist with Rogers? immediate needs.
The inquest was told Better Beginnings, Better Futures gave Rogers donations of milk, fresh fruit and vegetables. Rogers also received donations of food and things for her baby from the Elizabeth Fry Society and Salvation Army, said Kurke.
Kurke often went to Rogers? apartment to speak with her, and to have her sign papers relating to the court challenge.
Kurke regularly dropped off community donations.
Rogers often cried because she was going through a difficult time and appreciated the help, said Kurke.
Rogers? landlord had also agreed to accept only $300 from the normal $450 monthly rent, while her welfare was suspended. A local pharmacy also filled one prescription without payment for the anti-depressant medication Rogers was taking, she said.
Kurke was also able to help Rogers get her drug card reinstated by Ontario Works. Her outstanding bill at a local pharmacy was also paid in full.
Kurke testified she assisted Rogers in obtaining things she would need for her baby through a special program offered by Ontario Works.
Kurke took a day of her vacation time to help Rogers shop for baby clothes and necessities, she said.
The inquest has heard Rogers had not applied for and was not receiving the $43 monthly Ontario Works pregnancy diet supplement.
After the conviction was registered and her welfare benefits reinstated, she assisted Rogers in appealing her conviction, said Kurke.
Kurke recommended at the end of her testimony that welfare bans should not be imposed against people like Rogers, who had virtually no means of support.
Kurke also recommended municipalities be given more discretion and wiggle room and not be forced by provincial legislation to impose welfare bans.
All pregnant women who are receiving social assistance should automatically receive the monthly allotment for the diet supplement, said Kurke.
In earlier testimony, Andrew Buttazzoni, defence counsel for Rogers, testified it was his opinion as an experienced lawyer that her crime called for a severe penalty.
Welfare fraud involves a serious breach of trust, although he made it clear to the court Rogers was as first-time offender with no previous criminal record, said Buttazzoni.
The amount Rogers received illegally was an important consideration in sentencing, but even more problematic was the ?numerous misrepresentations? she made to college and government officials, he said.
?This was a typical resolution for this type of crime and for a first time offender,? said Buttazzoni.
?Based on a number of offences, and the information provided Rogers got a good sentence.?
Government agencies depend on the honesty of people in determining the benefits they are entitled to and Rogers betrayed this trust, he said.
?There is no defence for the welfare fraud which Rogers admitted to,? he said.