by Dawn J. Post and Sarah McCarthy
Rachel Canning, the New Jersey high school senior who sued her parents for child support, has been almost universally depicted as entitled and spoiled, and the case she brought has been called absurd. The case, which has since been dropped, led to much hand-wringing about the troubling specter of children suing their parents whenever they don’t get their way.
The judge worried that Rachel’s case would “open the gates to a twelve-year-old suing for an X Box.” Michelle Singletary of The Washington Post described the case as a teen receiving “a day in court she didn’t need.”
As attorneys who represent many teenagers in family court proceedings in New York City, we were concerned by the media’s outright dismissal of Rachel’s claims that her parents were both emotionally abusive and threatened her with beatings. These may be a fabrication of her situation; we have no knowledge of the specific dynamics of this family.
But we frequently see that teenagers are simply not taken as seriously as younger children by child welfare authorities when they allege parental abuse.. Investigators begin with the assumption that an abuse allegation is a teen’s way of acting out rather than a genuine cry for help.
Dismissing a teen’s allegations is one thing, and may, in some cases, be justified. But we are consistently troubled by the conduct of child welfare workers for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) when abuse against teens is clearly taking place.
In one recent case, we represented a 16-year-old, Lee, whose adoptive mother refused to give her a bed and used food deprivation as punishment. A home visit clearly confirmed that Lee had no bed except an air mattress that had long ago lost all of its air. The caseworker likewise observed locks on the cupboards.
In a different case, also involving a 16-year-old, Ella, a caseworker visited the home and confirmed that it was filthy, had insufficient food, was crammed with people, and had roaches everywhere. In front of the same worker, our client’s mother stated that she “wasn’t buying that bitch anything” when asked about buying her daughter a winter coat.
A neglect case was never filed against either of these parents. The focus remained solely on the teen’s “misbehavior,” which in both of these young women’s cases stemmed from their survival strategies for dealing with an abusive environment. Lee’s mother was allowed to do a “voluntary placement” (i.e., place her daughter into foster care due to her alleged misbehavior) and was thus never made to answer for her own conduct.
Lee currently resides at a residential treatment center, far from her friends and community, in order to receive treatment that will focus on “correcting” her own misbehavior.
In Ella’s case, ACS closed the case once they found a different adult who was willing to file for guardianship. They never took steps to file for neglect against the mother or took Ella into foster care in order to ensure that this new guardian would have sufficient resources to care for this teen.
The coverage of Rachel Canning’s case conjures the image of a doting parental unit, struggling to support an unreasonable teenager. This narrative, unfortunately, simply doesn’t describe every family or every parent. Teens are sometimes kicked out unfairly, or denied the basic support that every child needs.
The backlash against this particular case has the potential to spawn dangerous policies that would hurt teens who desperately do need a day in court. The presumption that teens are lying and that parents are always doing right by their children creates an environment where both child abuse and fraud of vulnerable young people can continue unchecked.
Dawn J. Post and Sarah McCarthy are attorneys with the Children’s Law Center of New York
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Children’s Law Center New York.