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How a 14-year-old sued her parents for support–and won

The Globe and Mail

Focus section cover story, August 21, 1993

This article portrayed how a legal organization was using an Ontario law to aid teenagers at the expense–literally–of their parents, and at the cost of the family working things out outside the courtroom.

The showdown came on Jan. 1 four years ago.  Angela Laurin, 14, had ignored her 10 p.m. New Year’s Eve curfew.  Indeed, she hadn’t shown up at her Mississauga home until 10 the next morning.  Her parents, Bill and Rose Marie, were furious.

“Where have you been?’ said Bill Laurin.

“None of your fucking business,” said Angela.

That was the last straw.  Mr. and Mrs. Laurin and their daughter, who had turned 14 just a day before, had been having trouble for over a year.  She had lied to them.  She had stolen from them.  Once, things had become so bad that Mr. Laurin had held Angela against the wall and said something like, “Enough of this, I’ve had enough.”

Now, for the first time, he slapped her across the face.

“She went berserk,” Mr. Laurin recalls.  “She tried to hit me and I grabbed her wrists and held her.”  His wife, meanwhile, called a father they had met at a parents’ support group, to come over and held calm her husband down.  Another parent took Angela in for the night.

Scenes like this are played out more frequently than parents would like to admit in households across Canada. But this case was different.  The next day, Angela moved in with the parents of her 16-year-old sister’s boyfriend.  She also called the police and had her father charged with assault.

More was to come.  Two weeks later, to the Laurins’ dismay, they were served with papers from a legal-aid clinic called Justice for Children and Youth, saying that their daughter had launched a suit against them in civil court for support payments of $861.05 a month.

Their 14-year-old had left home and expected them to pay for it.  And she was well within her rights.  In fact, Justice for Children and Youth, with little press attention, has represented about a dozen other children in recent years who have decided to seek financial support through the courts.

In her application for support, Angela cited section 31 of Ontario’s 1986 Family Law Act, which states that “Every parent has an obligation to provide support, in accordance with need, for his or her unmarried child who is minor or is enrolled in a full-time program of education, to the extent that the parent is capable of doing so.  The obligation . . . does not extend to a child who is 16 years of age or older and has withdrawn from parental control.”

In her application, Angela stated, “I have not been living at home since Jan. 1 of 1989, as I was physically abused by my father, William Laurin.”

Parents reading this account may find themselves searching for clues about how a domestic situation could deteriorate so badly.  It is certain that Angela’s perspective of the following events would be different from her parents’. She must have been troubled to have resolved things the way she did.  What this article attempts to address is whether this family was well served by the legal process that took place.

Mr. and Mrs. Laurin give every appearance of being ordinary Canadian parents.  Bill Laurin, 4, is employed as a computer-systems analyst for Transport Canada at Pearson International Airport.  Rose Marie Laurin, 42, works for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd as a text processor.  They describe themselves a very close couple, and their household as Christian.  It becomes evident after several discussions with them that they have a sense of humour; they frequently finish each other’s sentences.

The Laurins’ two daughters, Eleanor, born in 1972, and Angela, born in 1974, had curfews, did chores, and involved themselves in volunteer work as altar servers at the local Catholic church.  Mr. Laurin was a volunteer with Victims’ Services at the Peel Regional Police Department, where he worked three 24-hour shifts a month helping crime victims.

In 1987, Eleanor ran away from home after becoming involved with a 17-year-old high-school dropout.  The Laurins found her in London, Ontario and persuaded their older daughter to return home.

That fall, the Laurins received a call from the principal at 12-year-old Angela’s junior high school saying she had arrived at school drunk.  The Laurins (neither of whom drink) discovered she had been standing outside the local liquor store asking customers to buy alcohol for her.

That year was filled with strife.  Just about every Friday night Angela would run away from home.  A phone number found in her bedroom turned out to be that of a policeman on the vice squad of 52 Division in downtown Toronto (although the officer told the Laurins he couldn’t remember anyone answering Angela’s description).

Mrs. Laurin asked the family doctor to test her daughter for a hormonal imbalance; he told her he thought she just had an obnoxious teenager on her hands.  “We suspected she was an alcoholic and tried to get her medical treatment,” says Mrs. Laurin.  “But he told us that because she was over 12 we couldn’t force her to do anything.”

That winter Angela, at her request, lived in a group home.  She ran away three times, and after six weeks decided to return to the Laurins’.  After this, when they fought, Angela would often taunt her parents by saying, “Go ahead, smack me.  I’ll just sue you.”  The Laurins arranged counseling sessions with a Children’s Aid Society social worker, who came to their home every other week for two months in 1988.  But Angela refused to join the sessions.

The couple also joined a local group of parents who were experiencing similar difficulties with their kids. “The parents’ support group kept us sane,” says Mrs. Laurin.  “For four years, we never missed a week.”

Helen Jones is the present of the Association of Parent Support Groups of Ontario.  She says there’s no common denominator among the members.  “We can’t just blame family breakdown on parenting style.  Some are more strict, some are more easygoing, but that’s about it.”

As far as she’s concerned, there’s only one reason children are taking their parents to court.  “What’s changed is that kids now have so many resources to turn to when they don’t like their home situation.”

Justice for Children and Youth, the Toronto-based legal-aid clinic that Angela turned to, is among those resources.  It has been working for kids’ rights since 1977, when it was founded through the Ontario Legal Aid Clinic plan.  Today it is part of the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney-General, its $412,098 annual budget funded by the province and a charity, the Canadian Foundation for Children and the Law.

Over the years, Justice for Children and Youth has done impressive work on behalf of juvenile offenders, children in foster homes, youngsters who seek to challenge the health and educational systems.  And, as in the case of Angela, teenagers who want to sue their mothers and fathers for support.

Justice for Children and Youth is unlike other legal clinics only in the fact that its clients are young.  There are four lawyers on staff.  A social-worker position was eliminated in 1986.

Executive director Brian Weagant and staff lawyer Cheryl Milne, who has handled many of the clinic’s child-support cases, say their function is to explain the legal options open to their clients, then proceed according to their instructions.

In cases like Angela’s, Ms. Milne says, the clinic sends a letter to parents explaining that the child wants (and is entitled to) financial help.  She says each case is approached with the hope that the problem can be sorted out amicably: “We don’t want to just antagonize the parents and turn it into a huge battle.  The reason we don’t like taking these cases to court is that the kids don’t win big.”  In fact, most support cases have been settled out of court.  Ms. Milne says children don’t find their way to the clinic unless “the situation to them is an intolerable one.”  The clinic does not make moral judgments on the cases it handles.  Mr. Weagant notes that even if a child’s position is one with which he disagrees, “we have an obligation ethically to get the kid hooked up with counsel.”  He rejects the notion that mediation or counseling should be forced on his clients, “although we offer as many services as any private bar lawyer.”

He said in an earlier interview that his youthful clients sometimes leave him in an odd professional position:  “I spend half the week taking patently unreasonable positions and trying to put the best gloss on them and praying as I leave the office in the mornings [for court] that I’m not going to look too stupid on behalf of my client.”

The clinic does not check out the family background or the circumstances of a support case to determine whether a youngster has a legitimate reason for leaving home.  Says Ms. Milne: “We don’t investigate what’s going on in the homes.  That’s not our job.”

It would appear to be nobody’s job.  During the 10 months’ wait for Mr. Laurin’s criminal trial and Angela’s civil trial for support, Mrs. Laurin says she tried to enlist the Children’s Aid Society in persuading Angela to return home or at least talk to them.  She was told that, because the society has a mandate to protect children and Angela didn’t want protection, it could do nothing to help effect a reconciliation.

Mr. Laurin’s assault case was heard in a Brampton, Ontario criminal court in October, 1989.  The charges were dismissed.  The judge said: “In this case a slap was justified for trying to get his child to stop goinig on drinking binges.”

The same week the support case went before a family court in Willowdale, where Angela had been living since leaving the family home.  The Laurins had no legal representation, which they concede may have been a mistake.  “A lawyer told us we were going to lose because the Family Law Act says every parent has an obligation to provide support,” says Mrs. Laurin.  “She told us to save our money.”

Before the hearing, the Laurins gave the judge a four-page account of Angela’s behaviour over the past two years; it concluded, “in all this we believe Angela is still better off at home where we can try to get her the help she needs even though in the past she has refused to admit there are any problems.”

Although asked to submit a financial statement of their assets and liabilities before the hearing, they refused, saying they didn’t want their daughter scrutinizing their finances.  They agreed, however, to bring one to court.

On the day of the hearing, Angela was represented by Sheena Scott, staff lawyer for Justice for Children and Youth.  Angel’as monthly support needs were itemized—on the same form used for divorce proceedings—and included groceries ($173.16), restaurant meals ($44), pharmaceuticals($65), toiletries ($50), entertainment and recreation ($86.58).

A copy of the Laurins’ financial statement was given to Angela when the trial began.  She examined it, then prompted her lawyer to question details about the size of their investments and charitable donations.

It was a difficult day for everyone.  Ms. Milne says that in situations like the Laurins’, parents may get concessions from their children if they make a deal, saying “I understand I have a responsibility to provide financial support, but I’m going to attach some strings.”  She says she urges her clients to be pragmatic, too, even though the Family Law Act doesn’t attach any strings to the concept of parental support.

But the Laurins believed that making deals at the expense of principles was not what they should be teaching their daughter.  Angela was welcome to live at home; she was not welcome to live away from it on their money.

They lost the case.

At the end of the two-hour hearing, the judge stated, “The parents have to be tolerant of their daughter’s lifestyle and she has to be tolerant of theirs.”

Says Mrs. Laurin, “We could have lied through our teeth about our family situation.  So could Angela.

“The important thing is, we were never asked.”

Even children’s-rights advocates like Jeffery Wilson, a Toronto family lawyer and the co-founder of Justice for Children and Youth, have said they are not convinced the legal process rather than mediation best serves children.  Says Ms. Jones of the Parent Support Groups: “We can’t assume putting kids into an adversarial position with their parents will help.  It is easy to say parents should be pragmatic.  They are being pragmatic when they say, ‘we disagree with what you’ve done but you’re welcome to come home.’  To force them to support a child financially is to teach the child that if their parents don’t toe the line financially, others will help force them to abandon their principles.”

There will almost certainly be more such cases.  In Ontario the provincial government’s budget this spring decreed there will be no more student welfare provided for youngsters whose parents can afford to support them.

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