Spoiled. Entitled. Greedy. Misunderstood. Abused. Amoral. If the name “Rachel Canning” invokes feelings of confusion and a healthy dose of anxiety, you’re not alone. In the spring of 2014, the Internet was inundated with reports of the New Jersey high school senior who took her parents to court.
While online responses and commentary — predictably — ran the gamut, from those who supported Rachel’s lawsuit to those who vehemently opposed it, one thing is for certain: The Canning case can teach us a lot about the complexities of parenting in 2014.
Rachel Canning: A Complicated Story
In the fall of 2013, a high school senior named Rachel took the first steps toward becoming a national headline when she moved out of — or was forced out, kicked out or ran away from, depending on who’s telling the story — her parents’ comfortable, upper-middle-class home in suburban New Jersey. Canning, an honor student and cheerleader at a private Catholic school, claims that her parents’ abusive behavior left her no other option than to move out.
In court documents, Canning claimed that she’d been emotionally and psychologically mistreated by her parents. Specifically, her mother is alleged to have mocked her weight, calling her “fat” and “porky,” which lead to an eating disorder. Her father is alleged to have threatened her with physical harm, forced her to drink beer, and acted inappropriately with her, says a report from CNN.
Reports from Child Protective Services are ambiguous; reports state that the agency was called in by Canning’s school after highly contentious meetings between the teen and her father. A home visit resulted in a CPS agent concluding that the girl was “spoiled” rather than “abused.”
As for Rachel’s parents, Sean and Elizabeth Canning deny the charges of abusive and inappropriate behavior. Instead, they claim that Rachel chose to leave home of her own accord because she refused to follow house rules around issues such as curfews, drinking, boyfriends and the like.
Though no one knows exactly what went on in the Canning home except for the family themselves, one thing is certain: Rachel moved in with a friend whose father was an attorney. The family provided Rachel with legal advice and gave her advances so she could sue her parents for high school tuition, $650 a week in child support, transportation and medical expenses, and college tuition.
The Court Case
Add one more twist to this already convoluted situation: Rachel was 18. Under New Jersey law, a child isn’t automatically emancipated at age 18; courts often order parents in divorce cases to pay child support, including college tuition, until age 23. Plus, New Jersey a no-fault state, the nature of the parent-child relationship is not considered when determining whether parents owe child support or not.
During the course of the lawsuit, Canning’s parents stated that Rachel had been suspended for truancy and been caught drinking in the past year, actions that led to them banning her from seeing her boyfriend and removing her car and phone privileges. They also noted that Rachel refused to adhere to these rules and decided to run away. When she left home, her parents notified her school that they’d no longer pay her tuition.
In contrast, Rachel claims that she was forced to leave home to escape abuse, and that her parents had promised her that they’d not only pay her high school tuition, but also her college expenses.
On March 4, the case went to trial. The judge denied Rachel’s request for high school tuition payments, noting that the teen’s private school had already offered to allow her to finish the school year for free as she is an honor student, as well as the request for child support.
However, other questions were left up in the air. The judge declined to rule on the college tuition question, stating that he’d revisit the issue in a few months, after financial aid applications were due.
Regardless of how the case eventually turns out, it raises a number of questions about parenting in the 21st century. What, if anything, do parents “owe” their children? How strict is too strict? Is there a better way to address these issues — such as therapy — than a lawsuit?
Either way, the Canning case proves that there’s a fine line between taking care of your children and providing them with a constant escape hatch. In an op-ed by Canning’s attorney, she states that the family is currently trying to work things out. Hopefully, they’ll be able to navigate these tricky waters successfully.