One local family’s battle over tuition is making national and political waves, but at what cost?
Lots of parents dread the high cost of college tuition, but few have had the experience that has helped one fractured South Jersey family make national headlines.
News circuits have been captivated by the case of Caitlyn Ricci. The now-21-year-old Washington Township woman has become the talk of the town after making the decision to emancipate herself from her divorced mother and father, and then subsequently sue them for the cost of sending her to college.
Sound familiar? Think back to a year ago, in March 2014, when North Jersey high school senior Rachel Canning took her married parents to court for financial support and to pay for her college tuition. The 18-year-old’s case was thrown out, and she returned home to her parents shortly after. The story was barely a mention outside of New Jersey.
In this case, however, the court did not rule in favor of the parents and Michael Ricci and Maura McGarvey were told they must pay $16,000 of Caitlyn’s $25,000 Temple University tuition. It’s a decision they are still trying to fight, both legally and in the court of public opinion by openly arguing their side to anyone who will listen. Ricci penned a column for Yahoo Parenting, while McGarvey started a GoFundMe account to raise money for an appeal.
The story went from local battle to national debate when it made it to the table of Good Morning America, where hosts Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos shared their opinions of this family torn apart over cups of coffee.
And beneath each online story, there’s a flood of comments, ranging from the compassionate to the downright dirty. There’s the herd of supporters backing the parents who demand that the courts throw the case away, while another equally as vocal group supports Caitlyn on her quest for an education, and condemns the parents for making their family fight so public by dragging it through interviews and online forums.
There’s multiple sides to every story, but with new legislation proposed that could totally change the future of cases such as this, those sides are more blurred than ever.
In 1994, McGarvey became pregnant with Caitlyn when she was 21 years old, and she and Ricci married shortly after. Three years later, the relationship had ended and the pair split, sharing custody of their 3-year-old daughter.
“We were young parents but we always put her first,” McGarvey says. “We always put our differences aside for her. Even when we split up when she was 3, we would meet up at a restaurant and have dinner together. We were really mad at each other, but we were still a family, we were still mom and dad.”
Time went on, and both McGarvey—a public school teacher in Blackwood—and Ricci—a salesman and basketball coach at Haddon Heights High School, where he also lives—remarried and had more children. Caitlyn went on to high school at Washington Township, and both parents say that by her junior year they could see she was struggling with maturing in time for her 2012 graduation date. “Some of the behaviors she had during high school weren’t unusual, but we felt like she wasn’t mature enough to be on her own,” says Ricci. “I can’t point to specifics, but there were certain behaviors that she was showing that, as her mother and father that we thought she wasn’t ready to go away for college.”
McGarvey cited undisclosed behavioral issues that happened in Caitlyn’s junior year of high school as her main cause for concern. “When she graduated high school she wanted to go to Montclair State and go away,” she explains. “We sat down with her and said it might not be the right time.”
So the family chose to enroll the teen in a two-year associates program at Gloucester County College—now Rowan College at Gloucester County. It was there that they discovered what Ricci and McGarvey referred to as “Disney College,” a semester-long program where students live in Orlando, work for Disney World and take online courses. “[Caitlyn] wanted to go away and we both thought she wasn’t ready,” says Ricci. “When we decided to do this internship, we both thought we’d give her the opportunity to prove herself.”
Within three weeks of beginning the program, Ricci says that his 19-year-old was back on a flight home to New Jersey.
“She seemed to be having a good time; she was working and taking classes online. And then I got the phone call; she was hysterical saying she got kicked out,” says Ricci. “She blamed it on her roommate, and we later found out that [Caitlyn] was involved in underage drinking.”
Running out of options, the parents met privately to discuss a strategy for Caitlyn. “Her mother and I talked and said she needs to get her head screwed on right,” says Ricci. “She’s behind in school now, she just got kicked out of this program, and the behaviors we were concerned about in high school were creeping back.”
A family divided
Up until this point, the story is fairly ordinary: A young adult out on their own for the first time, sowing their oats and seeing what they can get away with. But Caitlyn’s return from Disney was far from ordinary.
It was February 2013 when Ricci and McGarvey met with their daughter together, with a written list of demands that included getting a full-time job, completing the two online courses from her internship, taking summer classes and doing chores around the home she shared with McGarvey and her step family.
Three days later Caitlyn was gone, having packed her things and moved in with her paternal grandparents, Angela and Matthew Ricci, in Cherry Hill.
“She said she wasn’t going to take the summer classes and it was a waste of our time and money to pay for them,” says McGarvey. “I called her when she left and said, ‘You’re 19, you’re an adult so I can’t stop you, but you’re making a big decision here. But this is the agreement; if you follow the rules we’ll support you. But if you want to move out I can’t support you.’
“She said she didn’t like living with me and didn’t like living with me for a long time.”
What began as a family quarrel hit new highs a few weeks later, when both parents discovered that Caitlyn and her grandparents were requesting that Ricci and McGarvey pay for their daughter’s living expenses, transportation and college tuition. “At first I laughed it off,” says Ricci. “I’m not going to let her move out and not contact us at all simply because she doesn’t want to follow the rules, then expect me to pay for her education.
“We tried to keep in contact with her—whether it was through emails, calls, texts—and there really wasn’t any response. And then the Saturday before Mother’s Day we received letters in the mail saying that we were going to be sued by Caitlyn for her college education and that the lawyer was being paid for by her grandparents.”
Ricci has had little to no interaction with his parents—who did not respond to multiple requests for comment—for over a decade, but claims he still encouraged a relationship between his daughter and her grandparents. “The fact that they hired a lawyer to sue their son, that really hurts,” Ricci says, looking at a photo of his daughter’s high school graduation that still sits on his desk. “To think that when she graduated high school, that six months after that our relationship would be destroyed by her grandparents and attorney, it’s the hardest part.”
When the court documents first started coming in, both parties had one goal: mediation.
“We’ve tried [mediation] and we’ve really bent over backwards to try,” says Andrew Rochester, the Cherry Hill attorney representing Caitlyn and her grandparents. “Before the first piece of paper was filed with the court we wrote a letter to the parents and said here are the issues, we’d like to sit down and work this out. We don’t want to go to court and we’re not interested in publicity. Caitlyn just wants to go to college.”
Rochester says that he was looking to follow the family’s original path for Caitlyn; two years at Rowan College at Gloucester County, followed by a four-year school in-state. “The first judge that heard the case in 2013 understood that,” says Rochester. He says that after Ricci and McGarvey responded negatively to the “Mother’s Day letter” that he had no choice but to go to court.
“The judge in 2013 entered the order that he did, and said that Caitlyn’s parents were paying 50/50 for college and we will try mediation before filing the second round of litigation in 2014,” says Rochester.
After the original round of courtroom battles Caitlyn was requesting tuition support for her education at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she had enrolled without telling her parents. Caitlyn would pay $9,000 of the $25,000 tuition, but the remainder was put in the hands of her parents. “That summer that she decided to go to Temple, Maura found out by looking at her Twitter account,” says Ricci. “She never called us to ask if we could afford it, or if we thought it was a good idea.”
“We’ve been in court five times now,” says McGarvey. “The only time I’ve seen my daughter in the last two years is in the courtroom. She blocked me on social media and doesn’t return texts. So in a sense it’s nice to see her.”
And Ricci has a different side to the situation. “During [mediation], we offered her a substantial amount of money towards her college education,” he says. “We didn’t want to—she was still living away and wasn’t speaking to us—but even at mediation we offered her thousands of dollars towards Temple University and they turned it down. We offered over 50 percent of the $16,000 tuition, and the lawyer said no, we want the entire $16,000.”
But Rochester says that mediation was still on the table, even after going into their second year in court. Rochester claims that when the next round of mediation came up in 2014 that Ricci had taken a trip to Las Vegas with his wife, and would not answer the phone. “We tried to work it out in mediation and before we filed, but it’s hard to do that without dad, and then ultimately the judge entered the order that he entered.”
“Her attorney will say that and say that they want to settle, but he’s never willing to budge,” says McGarvey. “He’s never offered anything besides paying for Temple, a school that we can’t afford. We offered to pay for an in-state college and they turned it down.”
Through it all, one question remains up in the air: What does the divorce have to do with it? When North Jersey’s Rachel Canning took her married parents to court in 2013, the case disappeared in a month. But a 1982 case, Newburgh v. Arrigo, has become the standard that courts follow in issues of divorced, widowed or separated parents and tuition for children.
That historic case set a new standard for parents and children of divorce, which looks at a series of financial and familial standards to determine the parents’ responsibility towards paying tuition. Ricci and McGarvey say that these standards impede their ability to raise Caitlyn with their set of morals, while Rochester argues that the courts are simply protecting Caitlyn from any unwritten agreements that she cannot control.
“The law in this subject has been clear for decades,” says Rochester. “The laws where a parent has an obligation to support their children, it’s existed for about 50 years. And public policy in New Jersey is that education is paramount. And as the world modernizes, education beyond high school is now a necessary part of life. It’s really necessary to make something of yourself. The good news is that even though all this awful stuff has gone on, the courtroom is applying the law in the courtroom.” But McGarvey’s attorney, Kelli Martone, questions whether or not the courts would have a case of action against the two parents if they weren’t divorced. “Here she’s saying I have no obligation to you but you have to pay. That’s not what Newburgh v. Arrigo was ever about,” says Martone. “At the end of the day, the parents want to see their child succeed and that message has gotten lost. But these were two parents that were intact and had some parameters in place. The rules of a household and the consequences go hand-in-hand.”
Time for a change?
Since the case came to light, new proposed legislation could totally transform the future of family law. Local Assemblymen Christopher J. Brown, Paul D. Moriarty, and North Jersey Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi introduced a bill at the start of January that would implement more checks and balances on post-high school tuition between two consenting, divorced parents.
“There’s been a lot of interest in the legislation, and we were waiting for the right time,” says Moriarty, who stresses that the bill applies only to divorced parents in agreement, like Ricci and McGarvey. “This case really highlighted this issue, and it spurred this issue that there could be a difference and that people could be held to a different standard based on their marital status. But it’s not about this specific case; it’s being made aware of the problems that there are.”
“This legislation makes sure that parents remain a part of the decision-making process when they are funding the education of their children. When a court supersedes parents’ decisions of where to send their child for college, it makes the child the unilateral authority on where they attend school and then sticks the parents with the bill,” adds Brown.
The legislation looks at a number of factors to determine how divorced parents could amend alimony and child support if they are both in agreement on the issue of tuition for the child, including the ability of the child to earn their own income, the relationship between parent and child, and the child’s commitment to their education.
“The bill is an attempt to level the playing field,” explains Moriarty. “Whatever a couple who is together and married is trying to do [for their child] should be the same for a couple that is divorced. There is an extra requirement on divorced parents that doesn’t necessarily happen when you’re married.”
“Assemblyman Brown told me that in New Jersey’s last primary elections, it was the first year in the history of the state that there were more divorced parents than married parents,” says Ricci, who has met with both local assemblymen to discuss this legislation. “This hits home with a lot of people in the state, and there are a lot of opinions on this situation.”
Not everyone sees this proposal as good news. “I read the proposed statute earlier today, and as someone who has been practicing family law for 20 years it causes me concerns,” says Rochester. “What they’re trying to say is that mom and dad can agree to pay nothing. But post-secondary education is effectively considered child support, and this is saying that mom and dad can abrogate their duties to their child. Giving parents the ability to chop off this support really concerns me. It concerns me that we’re giving the mother and father the opportunity to conspire against their own child for what is necessary.”
After losing their battle and being ordered to pay the $16,000 tuition, Ricci and McGarvey reached out to a local news station, which sparked dozens of interviews, stories and editorial pieces from the Washington Times, the New York Daily News and the Los Angeles Times.
There was a piece in the New York Post titled “It’s Time to Teach this Brat a Lesson,” featuring a photo of Caitlyn smiling in her graduation robes directly above a story featuring quotes from both parents, where the writer calls the teenager “rotten spawn” chasing a “money-grubbing lawsuit.” But Caitlyn’s voice was absent, as it is in the other stories you’ll find on her case.
“Caitlyn hasn’t spoken out once about this to the media,” explains Rochester. “The one thing I tell people is that what is said about Caitlyn in the media and who Caitlyn is are two totally different people. When I read about her or listen to people talk about her on the radio, I’m listening to people talk about two different people.”
Rochester says that he and her grandparents have been working hard to protect Caitlyn from the media backlash that began when her parents reached out to 6ABC and Good Morning America. “Mom and dad did the first interview with Channel 6, and the comments that came down on Caitlyn were appalling. Some of them were very clearly threatening,” Rochester says. “I told the parents what the reactions were online, and about the threats, and their next reaction was to go on Good Morning America. Someone is telling you that there are people that are threatening your daughter’s safety, and their reaction was to publicize it more.”
Ricci and McGarvey say their interviews and online blogs were a last-ditch attempt at help. “We decided that we were going to go public, not to embarrass our daughter but to bring to light this law that is ridiculous,” says Ricci. “We knew that people could say some really nasty things, but we wanted to create change in this law. We felt we were being discriminated against, and the only way to get some action was to go public.”
“I’ve been judged as being a bad mother, because who would do this to their daughter and go public? But this was public the minute those papers were filed. Once my daughter did that and made accusations that questioned our character it was already public,” says McGarvey. “We’re public employees, we had to defend ourselves.”
But the comments, threats and accusations continue to pour in. “I read the comments initially on 6ABC and on Yahoo Parenting, and I had to stop,” says Ricci. “I didn’t want to hear those things that were being said about Caitlyn.”
“I fight my cases in the courtroom, not on Twitter,” says Rochester. “The comments that we see on social media, I try not to read them. There’s only so many times I can read someone threaten my client.”
With the media swirl slowing a bit, and in the middle of preparing for another battle, the family is working hard to move forward. Rochester confirms that Caitlyn is back in school, getting good grades, but won’t disclose the university to the public, or to her parents.
“They won’t even tell me where she’s going to school,” says McGarvey. “At this point I’m just writing a check to a stranger. I have no access to grades, and she doesn’t have to maintain a grade point average.”
“Caitlyn is a hard-working girl, she’s a full-time student, working a 30-hour-a-week job and getting good grades,” says Rochester. “And that’s something her parents just never give her credit for. They don’t give her credit for what she has done. It’s heartbreaking to hear her parents talking about her when I know this.”
Meanwhile, Ricci and McGarvey have yet to pay the $16,000 they were ordered to pay in November, and are instead focusing their energies on an appeal. And while all parties still say they are open to the idea of mediation, they agree that it seems unlikely at this point.
“I hope that there’s a resolution but I don’t think that will happen until she leaves her grandparents’ house,” says McGarvey. “I’ve been walking past an empty bedroom for two years. I still hope she comes home, because at some point you realize you just need your mom, and I’m brokenhearted because she’s my girl. I have to believe that there’s a part of her that still knows that.”
McGarvey says that her sons—ages 9 and 11—are beginning to lose the memories they had of their sister, while Ricci’s three younger children barely know their sibling.
“My 3-year-old doesn’t even know who she is. My kids now don’t even realize they have a sister, because she hasn’t been around for over two years. She has brothers and sisters and parents that love her and she doesn’t want to see them,” says Ricci. “Nobody won here. Nobody won.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 12 (March, 2015).
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