MORRISTOWN, N.J. — A judge denied an 18-year-old's preliminary requests Tuesday for weekly child support and access to a college fund after the high school senior sued her parents.
Judge Peter Bogaard of Morris County Superior Court's Family Division said no to Rachel Canning's initial requests but scheduled another hearing April 22 to decide whether the Catholic high school cheerleader and lacrosse player was constructively abandoned by her parents and left or whether she chose to become independent.
Canning, an honor student at Morris Catholic High School, claims her parents threw her out of the house and would not support her beyond her 18th birthday unless she gave up her boyfriend.
Trial Court Administrator Rashad Shabaka Burns said the outpouring of media interest is unlike any he has ever encountered, attracting millions of readers from across the USA and reporters from London and Japan.
"It's a fascinating case," Burns said.
Journalist Will Payne, who reports for the United Kingdom's Daily Mail Online, was at the courthouse early here to ensure he would get a seat in the courtroom.
"Everyone can relate to the idea of having children and having disputes with parents but not many people can relate to having their disputes played out in court," Payne said. "This is quite a controversial case. It's got an extreme element to it in that it's in court."
Canning's lawyer, Tanya N. Helfand, asked that parents Sean and Elizabeth Canning be ordered to settle an outstanding $5,306 Morris Catholic tuition bill; pay Rachel Canning'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.
She hopes to become a biomedical engineer.
Rachel Canning said her parents kicked her out of their Lincoln Park, N.J., home when she turned 18 in November. She has been living about 15 miles away in Rockaway Township, N.J., with the family of her best friend, Jaime Inglesino. Inglesino's father, lawyer John Inglesino, is paying for the lawsuit.
Inglesino said he and his wife decided to finance the lawsuit because they fear that the young woman will lose opportunities for a strong education and a happy future without her parents' contributions.
Court documents show frequent causes of parent-teenage tension — boyfriends and alcohol — taken to an extreme. The filings show accusations and denials, but one thing is clear: the girl left home Oct. 30, two days before she turned 18 after a tumultuous stretch during which her parents separated and reconciled and the teen began getting into uncharacteristic trouble at school.
"We love our child and miss her. This is terrible. It's killing me and my wife. We have a child we want home," Sean Canning said before the hearing. "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."
The judge noted that allowing young people to sue their parents could set a bad precedent and invite lawsuits from children who believe that their parents owe them — even hypothetically — an Xbox upon demand. Bogaard is strongly encouraging family counseling.
Sean Canning said his daughter has to be willing to abide by rules such as returning home by curfew, not borrowing her sisters' clothing and reconsidering her relationship with her boyfriend.
Boyfriend Lucas Kitzmiller, also a senior at Morris Catholic, is a B student and plays football. His mother, Lisa Kitzmiller, filed a certification with the court that states Rachel Canning is a "mature young girl." Lisa Kitzmiller contended that she has had unpleasant verbal encounters with both Elizabeth and Sean Canning, a retired Lincoln Park police chief who now works as township administrator in Mount Olive, N.J.
Lisa Kitzmiller swore in her certification that before the fallout, she and her son were on Facetime with Rachel Canning when her father entered her room.
"My recollection was he said, 'Congratulations. You are turning 18 and there are two things you have yet to do: Get pregnant or do drugs to the best of my knowledge. You will not be able to see the scumbag or the scumbag's family anymore.' " Lisa Kitzmiller wrote that she believes Sean Canning was referring to her son.
In Rachel Canning's court filings, she said her parents are abusive, contributed to an eating disorder she developed and pushed her to get a basketball scholarship.
They said they were supportive, helped her through the eating disorder and paid for her to go to a private school where she would not get as much playing time in basketball as she would have at a public school. They also said she lied in her court filing and to child welfare workers who are involved in the case.
Family law attorney Edward O'Donnell of Morristown, who has represented public figures and a woman who sued former Pittsburgh Steeler Dave Meggett for child support, said social media has created the frenzy of interest in addition to the unusual aspects of the case.
New Jersey case law requires parents who are financially capable to support their children and pay for college if the children are "within the sphere of parental influence" and are dependent on them for support, he said.
"Twenty — even 10 — years ago most people wouldn't have heard of this kind of story except if they picked up a newspaper, but it's of major interes, due to social media," O'Donnell said. "And, the ramifications are incredible."
Contributing: The Associated Press