Even in the typically impressive annals of teen family dramas, this one's a doozy. An 18-year-old New Jersey high school senior is suing her parents to get them to pay for her school tuition.
Rachel Canning was in a Morris County court Monday and will be back there again Tuesday to make her case that her parents have "abandoned" her. She claims that she has no means of supporting herself or paying to attend any of the colleges of her choice in the fall. Her parents, on the other hand, say they're "distraught" and "dumbfounded" over their daughter's behavior.
While accounts of how the family rift occurred differ, a few facts are clear. Canning is in many ways a model kid. She's an honor student and cheerleader who dreams of becoming a biomedical engineer. She has already received a $20,000 scholarship from one university and acceptances from several others. Her father, a former local police chief, says that "We have a college fund that's available to her -- there's no doubt about that," but admits that the family has stopped payment on her current tuition at Morris Catholic, and has kept the car they bought her.
Then the story begins to diverge. Rachel has not been living with her parents and siblings since the fall, when her parents say she ran away after refusing to adhere to the house rules. "There’s minor chores," her father says. "There’s curfews – when I say curfew, it’s usually after 11 o’clock at night." He says that a DCP&P representative visited his family's home last fall and claimed Rachel was "spoiled" and ended the investigation. He says that "We love our child and miss her. This is terrible. It’s killing me and my wife. We have a child we want home. We’re not Draconian and now we’re getting hauled into court. She’s demanding that we pay her bills but she doesn’t want to live at home and she’s saying, 'I don’t want to live under your rules'."
Rachel, meanwhile, claims she didn't run away, but chose to move in with her best friend's family after her parents told her to break up with her boyfriend or get out. In court papers, she contends, "My parents have rationalized their actions by blaming me for not following their rules. They stopped paying my high school tuition to punish the school and me and have redirected my college fund, indicating their refusal to afford me an education as a punishment." A school official has attested she witnessed an argument between Rachel and her mother in which she heard "Elizabeth Canning call her daughter a foul name and say she didn’t want to speak to her daughter again." Rachel's best friend's father, attorney John Inglesino, is funding the current lawsuit, and says he's already spent over $12,000 on the case because "he wants Rachel to have a great future." He is requesting her family pay the legal fees as well.
Contrary to a popular opinion – and that private countdown clock ticking away in many parents' minds – a child is not automatically legally let loose to fend for him- or herself upon reaching an 18th birthday. Just because you can vote, work, enlist in the armed forced and get married doesn't mean your parents are no longer obliged to care for you. As Theodore Sliwinski explains on DivorceNet, "a court may not emancipate a child over the age of 18 if he or she is in still in college and relies on parental support." And this why Rachel actually has a case. Family-law attorney Sheldon Simon told the Daily Record Monday that while the case is "highly unusual," "a child is not emancipated until they’re on their own. Even if a child and the parents don’t get along, that doesn’t relieve the parents of their responsibility."
While it's still up to the New Jersey legal system to determine whether Canning will succeed in it, she's definitely already lost in the court of public opinion. The comments on the local CBS and ABC stories run overwhelmingly in the "spoiled brat" side. Her father more charitably says that "I know Rachel is a) a good kid, b) an incredibly rebellious teen, and she’s getting some terrible information."
It's hard for the many, many of us who cobbled together our educations while working thankless, crappy jobs to have a lot of sympathy for an able-bodied, intelligent girl who'd haul her parents into court to make them pay for college. But it's also got to be a humiliating and very scary blow for a high school student to have her folks stop supporting her and paying her current tuition. The Cannings entered into an understanding at the beginning of the year with Morris Catholic, and their current family dispute is leaving the school and their daughter in the lurch – a tacky and unnecessary move.
Whatever the outcome, the unusual case isn't just about one allegedly very "spoiled" girl and her tough love parents. It's about the fact that turning 18 really doesn't make anybody automatically an adult. Canning is a smart girl, and she could likely do just fine in the world even without the college funds her parents had originally earmarked for her. Lots and lots of people manage to get educated and have careers without a big fat parental financial safety net. What's sad for all sides right now is that there's nothing any judge can do to make a teenager and her parents have a loving, supportive relationship. That's what Canning really needs, even more than a few grand for college.