Elisa Kelly thought she was doing the right thing when she bought $340 worth of beer and liquor for her 16-year-old son and more than 20 of his friends. In exchange for the booze, Kelly's son agreed that all his pals would sleep over at his birthday party. That, in the mind of the 42-year-old mother of two, was the best way to keep the underage revelers from drinking and driving. And, she says, none of the kids who came to her Earlysville, Va., home got hurt. But someone is indeed paying the price—Kelly herself went to jail this week to serve a 27-month sentence for providing alcohol to minors.
Her conviction raises some uncomfortable questions for parents as another season of alcohol-fueled graduation parties gets under way. Many communities around the country are imposing new or tougher “social host” laws that make parents legally responsible if underage guests drink at their homes. In some cases, the adults can be charged even if they weren't aware of the illegal imbibing on their property. Penalties range from probation to jail time and fines up to $5,000 depending on the circumstances and prevailing laws that determine if the offense is a misdemeanor, felony or violation of civil laws. (Check out your state's criminal social host laws at the Alcohol Policy Information's Web site.)
Oklahoma and Connecticut are the latest states to enact legislation forcing parents and other adults to take responsibility, essentially, for what gets consumed under their roofs. Previously in Connecticut, anyone could hold a drinking party on private property, and minors could drink at home regardless of whether their parents were present. The new law specifies that those under 21 can drink at home only if a parent or guardian is around. In Oklahoma, if someone tolerates underage drinking that later results in a fatality, they can be sent to prison for up to five years.
In New York's Nassau County, legislators are now considering a bill that would punish adults whose homes are the site of underage drinking whether they knew of the partying or not. (Exceptions in 31 states allow parents to give their own kids alcoholic beverages, though the conditions and locations vary. There's no truth to the rumor that parents can legally pass out beers to their kids' friends if their parents sign a waiver.)
Legal considerations aside, some parents argue that it’s safer to let kids drink at home under supervision rather than away from adult eyes. Many experts, however, disagree.
"In many cases parents do this under the false assumption that they are protecting their kids. They make the assumption that they won't drink elsewhere and that's not true," says Robert Lindsey, director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
In addition to drunken-driving accidents that too often end tragically, teen-drinking parties can spawn sexual assaults, stabbings, brawling and neighborhood vandalism. "We all know we're fooling ourselves if we think underage drinking is fine," says Stacy Saetta, a legal policy researcher at the Center for the Study of Law and Enforcement Policy in Felton, Calif. "Simply to say it's a rite of passage isn't good enough." Even when parents think they are doing the right thing by gathering car keys of partiers, "kids still get away and still drive drunk," she said. "These parties are very, very dangerous."
Tragic stories abound. After a graduation party last year in suburban Chicago where police said celebrants were drinking, two teens left and were killed in a car crash. The parents who hosted were hit with five misdemeanors for reportedly allowing the celebration. A trial is set for July.
Police are cracking down on adults even when no one gets hurt. Two weeks ago, former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jack Trudeau was arrested on charges including contributing to the delinquency of a minor, after officers found a group of teens at his home celebrating graduation with alcohol. Trudeau, whose daughter was one of the graduating high-school seniors, denied he supplied any alcohol to the partygoers.
In any situation, adults supplying booze to kids for a party simply sends the wrong message, says Lindsey. The new emphasis on parental responsibility could serve as a wake-up call to the dangers of parents’ condoning junior's illegal boozing—5,000 deaths a year are attributed to underage drinking.
Some believe the answer to rampant underage drinking is to lower the drinking age back to 18. "Responsible parents understand that alcohol is a reality and responsible parents want to create the safest possible reality for that environment," says John McCardell Jr., who as former president of Middlebury College has seen his share of out-of-control underage drinking. "The current law makes those people lawbreakers and thereby says that impulse is illegal."
In Kelly's case, police broke up the ill-fated August 2002 birthday party after someone reported underage drinking. When officers arrived, Kelly encouraged partygoers to gargle with vinegar to mask the scent of alcohol, said Jon Zug, Albermarle County assistant commonwealth attorney. She had also told parents no alcohol would be served, he said.
Kelly and her former husband, George Robinson, were initially convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison, but the time later was reduced on appeal. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it. "Parents need to be parents and not their kids' friends," Zug said. "You need to make the really difficult choices and a lot of times that means saying no."