MORRISTOWN, N.J. -- A Morris Catholic High School honor student and athlete who claims her parents threw her out of their Lincoln Park home when she turned 18 has taken the highly unusual step of suing them for immediate financial support and to force them to pay for her college education.
Private high school senior Rachel Canning, a cheerleader and lacrosse player who has aspirations to be a biomedical engineer, filed a lawsuit last week in the Family Part of state Superior Court in Morristown that seeks a judge's declaration that she is nonemancipated and dependent as a student on her parents for support.
Judge Peter Bogaard, sitting in Morristown, has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday. Rachel Canning's lawyer, Tanya N. Helfand, will ask that parents Sean and Elizabeth Canning, who haven't paid an outstanding $5,306 Morris Catholic tuition bill, be ordered to settle that debt, pay Rachel's current living and transportation expenses, and commit an existing college fund to their daughter, who has received acceptance letters from several universities and has to make a decision this spring.
Since the alleged "abandonment" by her parents, Rachel has been living in Rockaway Township with the family of her best friend and fellow student Jaime Inglesino, whose father is attorney and former Morris County Freeholder John Inglesino. Inglesino is funding the lawsuit and hired attorney Helfand, who included in the lawsuit a request that the parents pay their daughter's legal fees that so far total $12,597.
Sean Canning, a retired Lincoln Park police chief who currently works as Mount Olive's township administrator, said his daughter's representation of the facts is not accurate and he fears she is being "enabled" by well-intentioned but ill-informed people who include the Inglesinos. Sean Canning said that Rachel voluntarily left home in October and was never thrown out.
"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,' " Sean Canning said.
The father said that he and his wife did stop paying the Morris Catholic tuition and have kept Rachel's car because they paid for it. The father contended that Rachel moved out because she didn't want to abide by simple household rules — be respectful, keep a curfew, return "borrowed" items to her two sisters, manage a few chores, and reconsider or end her relationship with a boyfriend the parents believe is a bad influence.
"We're heartbroken, but what do you do when a child says 'I don't want your rules but I want everything under the sun and you to pay for it?' " Canning said, adding that his daughter's college fund is available to her and not withdrawn or re-allocated, as she has alleged.
In New Jersey, emancipation of a child "is a fact-sensitive analysis that looks at whether the child has moved beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and has obtained an independent status of his or her own," Helfand said in court papers.
The mere fact that a child has turned 18 is not an automatic reason to stop financial support, according to Helfand and several longtime family attorneys in Morris County. A key court decision in the state specifies that, "A child's admittance and attendance at college will overcome the rebuttable presumption that a child may be emancipated at age 18."
Prominent family-law attorneys Sheldon Simon and William Laufer both called the lawsuit highly unusual and Laufer said he has seen nothing like it in 40 years of practice.
"A child is not emancipated until they're on their own," Simon said. "Even if a child and the parents don't get along, that doesn't relieve the parents of their responsibility." Laufer noted that under New Jersey law, a child can still be declared nonemancipated even if there is a hiatus between high school graduation and college.
Rachel Canning filed a certification with the court that contends her parents jointly decided on Oct. 29, 2013 that as of Nov. 1 — her 18th birthday — she would be cut off "from all support both financially and emotionally." She said in her papers that Morris Catholic advised her not to return home and contacted the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency (known as DCP&P and formerly as DYFS) after Rachel alleged abuse.
"My parents have rationalized their actions by blaming me for not following their rules," Rachel said in her court papers. "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."
Morris Catholic President Michael St. Pierre said in a certification to the court that the school did call DCP&P based upon some allegations by Rachel and "some difficult meetings between Rachel and Mr. Canning."
The court record also includes a letter from Morris Catholic English instructor and campus minister Kathleen Smith, who wrote that she was a witness to a rough encounter between Rachel and her mother in mid-October 2013 and heard Elizabeth Canning call her daughter a foul name and say she didn't want to speak to her daughter again.
"Rachel has excellent grades and will not be removed from the school for this nonpayment; however, her parents do have a contractual obligation to pay. Rachel is certainly unable at this time to attend Morris Catholic High School full-time and support herself financially," St. Pierre said in his certification.
Sean Canning said that a DCP&P representative visited his home for about three hours last fall, found nothing amiss, determined that Rachel was "spoiled" and discontinued the investigation. He said that he and his wife are beside themselves that discord with their daughter has reached this level.
Attorney Laurie Rush-Masuret, who represents the parents, said in court papers that Rachel emancipated herself and removed herself from her parent's "sphere of influence" by voluntarily moving out of their house "as she did not want to abide by her parents' rules...."
Rush-Masuret and Sean Canning said that Rachel was seeing a therapist long before moving out and is supposed to take medication. The parents contend she had disciplinary problems at school last term, was suspended twice, ignored her curfew at home and bullied her younger sister.
"Mr. and Mrs. Canning did not tell Rachel to move out; rather they advised her that she is welcome home so long as she abides by their rules under their roof, which is completely reasonable. However, Rachel decided that she does not want to live within her parents' sphere of influence and voluntarily moved out, essentially emancipating herself. Obviously, she cannot decide she will no longer live within her parents' sphere of influence and simultaneously seek payment from them for support," Rush-Masuret wrote the court.
According to letters included with the lawsuit, Rachel has been accepted at the University of Vermont, William Paterson University, Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., and has applications pending to other institutions. She has been offered scholarships — including $20,000 a year to study at Wells — but also would be reliant on the college fund established by her parents and other financial aid and grants.
In his court certification, John Inglesino wrote that he believed Rachel's stay in his home would be short and temporary. He wrote that his attempts to speak to Sean Canning about financial obligations to his daughter have not been fruitful and he and his wife, Amy, believe Rachel is "emotionally distraught by her parents' sudden rejection of her...."
Inglesino said that he and his wife decided to fund the lawsuit because they fear Rachel will lose opportunities for a strong education and happy future without her parents' contributions.
"Rachel is likeable, communicates exceptionally well and is highly motivated to attend and excel at a college appropriate for her. That is why my wife and I have decided to fund this lawsuit. We know that if Mr. and Mrs. Canning are not required to fulfill their legal obligations as parents, that Rachel's ability to fulfill her potential will be greatly diminished," Inglesino wrote the court.