A New Jersey teenager has lost the first round in her legal fight to get her parents to pay for college and living expenses in a case that is being closely watched because it deals with a seemingly universal conflict between parents and their teenagers.
Rachel Canning left home two days before her 18th birthday in October. In a motion argued Tuesday in a court in Morristown, N.J., Canning was seeking $650 in weekly child support and the rest of her tuition at Morris Catholic High School.
State Superior Court Judge Peter Bogaard denied those motions but ordered everyone back to court on April 22, when they will argue the broader question: whether her parents are obligated to financially support a daughter who says she was forced to leave because they were abusive. The family maintains the teenager left because she refused to obey house rules, including doing some chores and abiding by a curfew.
While the issue remains to be argued, the judge on Tuesday sounded skeptical about some of the teen's claims and the potential impact on other cases of familial strife and inter-generational conflict. Judge Bogaard said the suit could lead to teenagers "thumbing their noses" at their parents, leaving home and then asking for financial support.
"Are we going to open the gates for 12-year-olds to sue for an Xbox? For 13-year-olds to sue for an iPhone?" he asked. "We should be mindful of a potentially slippery slope."
The New Jersey case has drawn national attention because it highlights parental fears about a teenager growing up and possibly throwing aside the reins of parental authority.
The court documents seem to endorse Leo Tolstoy's famous dictum: "'All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The court papers are replete with accusations and denials.
According to Rachel Canning, she left home just before she turned 18 after her parents separated and reconciled and the teenager began having troubles at high school. A cheerleader and lacrosse player who hopes to become a biomedical engineer, Canning said her parents are abusive, contributed to an eating disorder she developed and pushed her to get a basketball scholarship.
In their court filings, Canning's parents, retired Lincoln Park police Chief Sean Canning and his wife, Elizabeth, said their daughter voluntarily left home because she didn't want to abide by reasonable household rules, such as being respectful, keeping a curfew, doing a few chores and ending a relationship with a boyfriend her parents say is a bad influence. They say that shortly before she turned 18, she told her parents that she would be an adult and could do whatever she wanted.
The parents said they were supportive, helped her through the eating disorder and paid for her to go to a private school.
The family left Rachel "high and dry because they didn't want to pay," the teenager's attorney Tanya Helfand told the judge, according to media reports from the courtroom.
Helfand said that her client learned her behavior from her parents, particularly her mother, with whom she has a difficult relationship.
"These people who call themselves loving parents paint the most disgusting portrait of their daughter" in the court filings, she said. "They are pointing the finger to avoid their parental responsibilities."
Representing the parents, attorney Laurie Rush-Masuret called Rachel Canning's claims "outrageous" and said that by leaving — and by the fact that she is 18 — the teenager "emancipated herself" and shouldn't count on her parents' support.
"There is no abuse. There is no neglect," the lawyer said. "They are not unfit parents. She could come home tonight."
Rachel Canning has been living in Rockaway Township with the family of her best friend. The friend's father, former Morris County Freeholder John Inglesino, is paying for the lawsuit.
Sean Canning told television station WCBS-TV on Monday that he was "dumbfounded" that he was being sued by one of his three daughters. He called Rachel "rebellious" and said her college fund was not in jeopardy.
"We have a college that's available to her -- there's no doubt about that. But it's the equivalent ... of going shopping at a high-end store and sending somebody the bill," he said.