Avoiding the Rachel Canning Saga

As originally posted on North Jersey Collaborative Law Blog

By now we are all familiar with the unfortunate, highly publicized litigation between a Morris County high school senior and her parents. The student, Rachel Canning, filed suit to have her parents pay for the balance of her private high school education and her college tuition. Rachel and her parents allegedly became embroiled in a controversy over Rachel’s refusal to abide by certain house rules. Rachel moved out of her parents’ home and was living with the family of a friend when she instituted suit against her parents. In fact, the legal action initiated by Rachel was allegedly financed by her friend’s parents. The regrettable litigation made news not just in North Jersey but throughout the country and internationally.

When we engage in traditional litigation, mediation or collaborative divorce, we are frequently called upon to negotiate or litigate the issue of private school and college obligation in the context of families who are divorcing or who are already divorced. Indeed, it is standard practice to address the payment of private school and college expenses in any matrimonial settlement agreement.

What is so unusual about the Canning matter is that it involved a clearly unemancipated teenager’s lawsuit against her parents to compel payment of educational costs in an otherwise intact family situation. Many attorneys and legal commentators believed that this case, like many other cases involving bad or unusual facts, could have set a very unfortunate legal precedent which would open the floodgates for children of intact families seeking to enforce their “rights” to expensive private school educations and who knows what else, perhaps cars, a spring break vacation, etc.

Those of us who practice collaborative divorce immediately recognized the value of such a process to a family like the Cannings. Had the family decided to engage a collaborative child specialist and collaborative attorneys to deal with the family dynamic issues which caused the rift between Rachel and her parents, a more meaningful and certainly a more private outcome would have resulted. The collaborative child specialist is a licensed mental health practitioner trained to elicit, hear and understand the concerns of the child [of ALL ages] and help guide parents to address those concerns in an optimal manner for all involved. The child specialist could have addressed those issues which resulted in Rachel feeling that she could no longer remain in the family residence.

That would have paved the way for a more constructive dialogue by the parties and the attorneys about the relatively straightforward financial issues. In many of our divorce cases, the collaborative child specialist is integral to helping parents and children transition through the divorce process and maintaining a better parent/child relationship for the future.
Whether the Canning matter was litigated, mediated or handled collaboratively, there is no question that a collaborative child specialist would have been invaluable in dealing with the highly charged emotional issues which led to the separation between daughter and parents. Further, If the parties chose to be represented by collaborative attorneys, the goal would have been to seek a private and lasting resolution that was focused on addressing the needs and interests of all family members.

Larry, Esposito, Esq.