The trendy-looking 20-year-old on stage is telling the story of how his uncle started to beat him when he came out as a teenager, hitting him while he slept in bed.
At the age of 17, he moved out, leaving his aunt and uncle, the only parents he had known since coming to Canada from Vietnam.
The young man, who is using only his first name — Bon — sued them for support and won.
Suing your own parents is a little-known aspect of family law and many of the lawyers sitting in the audience at the Ontario Bar Association workshop in downtown Toronto are hearing about it for the first time.
The association is holding the professional development session to launch its youth and child practice section, which will educate lawyers about children’s rights and eliminate the siloed nature in which many young people receive legal services.
“An adult can go and talk to an employment lawyer if they lost their job. Or their doctor if they’re feeling they have some mental health issues,” said Lucy McSweeney, the Children’s Lawyer for Ontario and the section’s founding chair.
But a young person is “showing up with their health issues and their job loss to ask you about being thrown out of school. To just say that’s just an education law issue, as distinct from there’s a mental health access issue, is unhelpful,” said McSweeney. “What we realized is that every area of law has an impact on youth.”
For the lawyers with Justice for Children and Youth, who are speaking at the bar association workshop, the issue of parental support isn’t new.
The specialized Toronto legal clinic gets calls every week from kids who have left home and want to know their rights.
“We work in these areas and people question children and youth rights,” said Mary Birdsell, the clinic’s executive director.
Some of those rights include the ability for 16 or 17 year olds who don’t live at home to go to school without the help of a guardian; or the right of siblings to ask for a court order to see brothers and sisters who live apart.
“We ask, ‘Do you know you can do these kinds of cases?’ And they say ‘no,’ ” said Birdsell. “It’s our uphill battle in terms of getting people to think about young people.”
The small shop of five or six lawyers takes calls from across the province from kids in crisis and can’t meet the demands of many cases, including ones like Bon’s.
“We’re hoping other lawyers who are practising family law, and are interested in youth rights issues, might become interested in taking these cases as well,” said Andrea Luey, who brought Bon to the workshop
The suits are allowed under Section 31 of the Family Law Act, the “same part of the law that provides for spouses to get child support. It comes from the general obligation to support your children,” said Birdsell. “Normally, we think of that as an issue that is between parents.”
Parents are typically obligated to support a child who does not leave home voluntarily until they are 18; longer if the person is in school or if there are extenuating circumstances, like homelessness, that make it difficult for a youth to enrol.
Luey said the cases are complex and not every client who expresses an interest in knowing their rights wants to proceed.
“Sometimes, even though in their view parents have wronged them in many ways, and their parents may have money, they don’t want to do that to their parents. It’s too uncomfortable. It’s too upsetting,” she said.
“Other times, the young person feels they’ve been so wronged that they want nothing to do with their parents,” said Luey. “They don’t want their parents’ money. They just want to move on.”
The work involved, the meetings and paperwork, can be taxing for an adult, let alone a young person with little outside support.
But when the cases do progress — to demand letters, or hearings and trials — Luey has arrived at settlements in every one.
Generally speaking, the lawsuits aren’t a solution to homelessness, she said, “but for certain kids it can make a difference.”
Youth leave home for a variety of reasons.
Sixty to 70 per cent of homeless youth have experienced family violence, but three-quarters of them experience victimization and violence on the streets within a year.
More than a quarter to a third of homeless youth have severe mental health problems; 23 per cent identify on the GLBTQ spectrum; and two-thirds will not finish Grade 12.
But in Ontario, welfare for kids who become homeless at age 16 and 17 is only available if they are enrolled full-time in school, can prove their parents are not willing to support them and have a responsible adult in their life.
For Bon, the lawsuit was an incredibly difficult decision but the monetary support he received changed his life.
“They tried to make me very emotionally unstable,” alleged Bon of his aunt and uncle, who he considered his parents. “There was physical abuse. My dad would hit me or throw things at me. There were times I had to call the cops on him because he would hit me when I was asleep.”
The said he youth left home and found an apartment, but was nearly evicted because the small business he worked for was late with his paycheque and there was nothing he could do.
“No one would listen to me because I had no authority.”
A youth councillor he consulted told him there was a way for him to sue his aunt and uncle, so Bon looked for answers on the Internet. The teenager laughingly said he called Legal Aid to see if he could get funding, but was told “no.”
Bon persevered and finally found the Justice for Children and Youth clinic, but he said the case was emotionally draining.
After not hearing from his aunt and uncle for two years, he says his aunt called him at 5 one morning, asking him if the lawsuit was a mistake and demanding that he stop.
“But at the end of the day,” Bon told the lawyers in the audience, “I’m not thinking about my mom. I’m thinking about myself because it’s her fault that I had to leave home.
“I’m not going to be one of those people that doesn’t make a decision,” he said. “So I had to ignore her and change my phone number so she can’t contact me any further.”
The $750 a month Bon says his aunt and uncle eventually agreed to pay allowed him to quit his night job and finish school. He still works 20 hours a week.
He will finish his last high school credit this fall and is enrolled in nursing at George Brown College.
“It was a difficult decision for him but he had hopes and dreams and knew that he was capable of making something of his life,” said Luey. “And he needed a little bit of extra money to get himself on track.”
Bon said that if the lawyers present have trouble convincing teenagers to sue, they should tell them his story.
“Tell them I did this. Most of the time I try to be a very nice person. But sometimes you have to do the right thing on your own. Because nobody else will ever do it for you.”