By Angeljean Chiaramida
With the onset of prom and graduation season, a harsh warning is once again being delivered on the risks of underage drinking. But it's not only being directed at students. A stern message is being sent to parents, too.
Those in the legal community and others who have experienced the devastating consequences of drunken driving firsthand are urging parents to think twice before hosting underage drinking parties or allowing teens to drink in private homes.
They say parents who think it's safer to allow underage drinking under their supervision are mistaken, and only opening the door to a potential nightmare,
"The idea that 'kids are going to drink anyway and they're safer drinking here' is false logic; it's a demonstrably false assumption," said Massachusetts Bar Association President and trial lawyer Richard P. Campbell, a leader in the campaign to bring an end to the epidemic of underage drinking.
"These kids rapidly consume huge quantities of alcohol at these parties because their goal is to get hammered. Anyone who thinks they can control that kind of behavior is crazy."
Furnishing alcohol to minors is a crime in all 50 states. In Massachusetts, furnishing includes not only knowingly or intentionally supplying alcohol to those under 21 who are not the children or grandchildren of those in charge, but also allowing minors to possess alcohol on the premises. Providing the alcohol is no longer the litmus test to illegality, the legal experts say. Letting kids drink, even if the liquor is brought by the party-goers, invokes the criminal statute.
The penalty for violating the state's social host law includes a $2,000 fine, one year in jail or both. In Essex County, parents and others who have violated the law have been charged, prosecuted, found guilty and punished, with some even sentenced to jail time.
Further, should death or injuries result from underage drinking parties, parents or others responsible for the gatherings are likely looking at civil suits. The civil liability in these cases is so extensive it was the focus of a recent article titled "The Risks of Providing Alcohol, or, A Place To Consume Alcohol, to Minors" in the New England insurance industry's weekly publication The Standard.
As a pediatrician, Carolyn Bornstein of Newburyport knows kids are more at risk to the toxic effects of alcohol than those who are older. But as a mother, she's seen firsthand how drinking can devastate lives.
In 2003, Bornstein's 17-year-old son, Neil, and his 16-year-old girlfriend, Trista Zinck, were walking when they were struck by a 19-year-old drunken driver who had consumed alcohol at an underage party. Zinck was killed. Neil Bornstein suffered serious injuries that linger today.
Bornstein, who will share her family's journey following the accident in her memoir, "Crash," due out in September, speaks weekly at high schools and to civic groups to help prevent further tragedy. She believes parents who think "my kids are going to drink anyway" are setting the bar pretty low.
She points to a paper published by the American Academy of Pediatrics that indicated the more permissive parents are about underage drinking, the more likely their children are to have problems with alcohol as adults.
"I think parents who think they're letting kids drink, but taking their (car) keys away to avoid drunken driving are making a big mistake," Bornstein said. "It's not just about drunken driving; it's about being drunk."
Campbell and Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett also spend hours speaking to youth, educators, parents, law enforcement officials and anyone who'll listen in hopes of preventing the dangers of underage parties.
"When underage drinking takes place, those involved often end up being the victims or the perpetrators of crimes," Carrie Kimball-Monahan, Blodgett's spokeswoman, said. "Sexual assaults are a big part of this, as are other crimes."
And parties can get deadly in an instant, when fights break out, accidents happen and drunk kids behave badly.
In North Andover in the late 1990s, a father who thought "he was doing the right thing" allowed an underage drinking party in his home, Campbell said. A 17-year-old girl fell down a few steps and was on the basement floor for hours, as inebriated party-goers stepped over her, assuming she has passed out because she was drunk. The girl died from her head injury.
"The police found 500 empty beer cans at that party," he said.
A Haverhill mother was charged in 2003 after allowing an underage drinking party in her home. At the party, she told a 16-year-old boy to leave due to his poor behavior. Angry at the order and too drunk to control himself, the boy punched a plate-glass window on his way out, severely cutting himself.
"He was found dead two days later," Kimball-Monahan said. "He bled out in a snowbank not far from the house where the party was."
In both cases, the adults in charge were prosecuted and found guilty. They were sentenced for their actions, with one spending six months in state prison.
"When the facts are there to support the charge, this office will and has prosecuted," Kimball-Monahan said. "The daughter of that (Haverhill) woman had to watch as her mother was handcuffed and taken to jail. Another mother lost her son."
Amesbury Lt. Kevin Ouellet said it wouldn't take a tragedy for his department to bring charges against those hosting underage parties.
"If there's probable cause, we definitely would bring charges, and we have in the past," Ouellet said.
Campbell said it's a myth that underage drinking parties in private homes are rare. Published data indicates private homes are the venue of choice for underage drinking. Sometimes parents are away, but often they are present during these parties, he said.
"Adults who facilitate these parties want to be pals with their kids and their kids' friends," said Campbell, who referred to these parents as muddled in their thinking. "Parents can be cool without allowing their kids to drink on their premises."
He believes diminishing the use of homes for these illegal fests will lessen the instances of out-of-control drinking by young people.
Campbell continues to work with state officials to shore up laws related to civil liability when injuries and deaths result from adult-hosted underage drinking parties.
"There should be no safe harbor in common law from the duty of reasonable care that everyone owes to every person," Campbell wrote in his article. "That is particularly true for someone committing a crime by providing a venue for illegal drinking by an underage person."