Teen Drinking: Is It Time for a Good Samaritan Law for Parents?

March 11, 2008

YHN and other parent bloggers (Abel Pharmboy, Dr. Free-Ride, DuWayne Brayton) have been musing on what DuWayne called “the conversation that never ends”. To wit, the conversation that parents anticipate having with their children over the use of recreational psychoactive substances and their attendant risks. The discussion touched on several topics related to parental involvement in teen alcohol consumption which led me to a simple proposal for your consideration DearReader.

(Apologies in advance to some non-US readers who feel that US culture is a bit Puritantical on alcohol. )
Abel Pharmboy moved us onto the question of community standards and external expectations regarding parenting behavior:

I agonized over the wording here in part because I live in a liberal outpost of a very conservative area where discussion of relative risks of drugs is not looked upon kindly and has actually gotten parents in trouble.

To which DuWayne responded:

it’s a catch twenty two. On the one hand, the only way to effect change is to talk about why these are perfectly reasonable choices. On the other hand, if one talks about it, it could be cause for serious legal problems. This is a tough enough issue that even living someplace as reasonable about these things as Portland is, it still makes me a bit nervous, talking about it.

This links us to a comment left by bachelor on an AiE&S post:

Remember Elisa Kelly? Sent to jail for two years because she thought her son would be safer if she supervised the party?

For context, a news item from Charlottesville, VA, tells us:

The Albemarle County parents accused of serving alcohol to their son’s under-aged friends were released from jail Monday morning.
Elisa Kelly and George Robinson were sentenced to twenty-seven months in jail, but spent five behind bars.
What many around our community did, including friends, family and attorneys of both Elisa and George, was write letters to the state parole board asking that the two be let go.

The Washington Post notes:

The couple, married at the time of the party, each pleaded guilty to nine counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, although they said they confiscated car keys at the beginning of the party and nobody was hurt.
The case became a cautionary tale for parents who allow underage drinking in their homes under the belief that it is better to let kids drink while supervised than for them to be drinking elsewhere and out on the roads.

I have to say that as a teen YHN profited immensely from a number of parents of friends who expressed the Kelly/Robinson attitude toward risk-reduction. Although I don’t recall any of them supplying the alcohol, they were willing to permit the party to go on at their house so long as nobody was driving home until the next day. This made all kinds of sense to me at the time, as you might imagine.
It still does. Do we even need to review the data suggesting drunk driving is a rather healthy risk category? Do we need to debate whether this is a greater harm than simply getting drunk in a safe location? Well, I’m sure if a case is to be made someone will chime in…
This brings me to my simple thought that it may be time to enact a Good Samaritan type of law, likely on a local and regionally-limited basis. The idea would be to limit the legal liability of parents who, in good faith, attempt to minimize harm from alcohol drinking and driving by opening their homes to teen partying.
I am not suggesting blanket protection from irresponsible behavior, far from it. The idea would not be to facilitate providing large amounts of alcohol to underage drinkers without concern. Rather, it might enshrine a way for the legal system simply to consider the entirety of the situation in deciding if a couple like the aforementioned Kelly/Robinson pair acted mostly for the good or for ill.
What do you think? Did you have parents in your circle of friends that permitted parties at their house under the “anything better than drunk-driving” hypothesis? Parents who (like my own) might be disposed toward this view but would never take on the liability? Would you ever see yourself hosting your kids’ and their friends’ under a harm-reduction rationale? Are you dissuaded by the obvious liability issues?

12 Responses to “Teen Drinking: Is It Time for a Good Samaritan Law for Parents?”

  1. Bachelor Says:

    Thanks for the news on Elisa Kelly! I still think it’s beyond idiotic, but I can appreciate the news in the same spirit that I appreciate the release of the Tripoli Six.
    As for the question… um, I don’t recall any such parental soul-searching. Of course there was going to be alcohol, and of course people were going to crash if they couldn’t take the bus home, and The Talk had to do with not wrecking the house.
    Yes, the police will come if it’s causing a disturbance, but they’re not any more obnoxious than necessary to curb the public nuisance. I’ve had them show up and tell us to close the patio doors to keep the music inside, and the concept that they’d actually start arresting anyone in a reasonably controlled situation is simply alien.
    (Although I remember one famous party where we were told that we could wreck the house; it was due for demolition on Monday. I was almost disappointed that nothing happened.)


  2. PhysioProf Says:

    This “zero-tolerance” shit is fucking nuts! When I was in high-school, we had keg parties every single fucking weekend in our town. The cops knew exactly what was going on, and they considered it their job to make sure no one got hurt, not to arrest and imprison people. If things got crazy, they broke up the party, and made sure everyone got home safely.
    I hope all the fucking asshole right-wing wackaloon douchemonkeys in the United States who are the cause of all this nonsense are happy we now live in a fascist fucking police state.


  3. Nelson Muntz Says:

    There are countries with no drinking age, where little kids learn the effects of wine at the dinner table and learn to monitor themselves.
    Imposing an age restriction means that kids will be utterly lacking in experience the first time they try alcohol.
    Our colleges have binge drinking, but those in Italy do not.


  4. bsci Says:

    “Good Samaritan Law” is an interesting phrase in this case. Legally, it means that, if you were trying to do something good and failed, you are not liable (i.e. if you did CPR and the person still died)
    You’re using it here to protect parents who are technically breaking the law (whether or not you agree with the law). Still the question is what if something goes wrong? What if a drunken kid falls out of the 2nd or 3rd story window of the responsible parent’s house? What if someone drowns in a pool? What if the parent doesn’t notice a rape occurring in the basement? Things like these do happen at safe parties a non-trivial number of times.
    Is the parent still a good Samaritian and legally protected because they took away car keys and provided a safe space? While theoretically the idea of safe places is nice, allowing any parent to legally assume this role is not practical. While the motive is good, I really don’t see a way to incorporate it into even an ideal legal system.


  5. Dunc Says:

    Apologies in advance to some non-US readers who feel that US culture is a bit Puritantical on alcohol.

    Ah! I wondered where that one had gone…
    This time around, I’m just going to quote Jack Law, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland and a member of the Scottish Ministerial Advisory Committee on Alcohol Problems:

    While it is illegal to give alcohol to a child under the age of five, and the legal drinking age is 18 for very good reasons, we think it is acceptable to offer children small tastes, diluted with water, because there’s a real mystery about alcohol. It is reasonable that in the home children are offered tastes with food.
    We need to accept that many young people do experiment with alcohol and many parents do allow their children to taste alcohol at home. It is perfectly reasonable to explain the risks associated with drinking and how to make it safer.
    What happens on the continent is that some children get very small tastes of alcohol, often diluted with water. It’s all about enabling them to feel part of a positive social experience. The exact age of the child is a judgment call for the families. Parents have to then think about how they drink themselves. Encouraging adults to drink less in the home provides a positive example to their children.

    [Expert: give alcohol to children as young as five, Scotland On Sunday, 29 July 2006]
    And then I’m going to walk away.


  6. DrugMonkey Says:

    There are countries with no drinking age, where little kids learn the effects of wine at the dinner table and learn to monitor themselves…Our colleges have binge drinking, but those in Italy do not.
    ahh, yes. the battle cry of the under-21. “The problem is that we aren’t allowed to drink all we want, waaah. Lookit Europe, they start drinking at, like, 11 and they have no problems with alcohol whatsoever!”
    This is false.
    It’ll take me a bit to round up all the data but first we can start with
    European School Survey Project on Alcohol and other Drugs
    The EU also has a health report on Alcohol
    Chapter 4 shows us that EU citizens drink like fish
    Chapter 5 details the “usual” harms associated with heavy drinking
    I did see a figure (Fig 5.2 in chapt 5, p.137 of the report) that suggests that Italians may be the least likely to experience adverse social and personal outcomes associated with heavy drinking so perhaps Muntz is onto something!
    Wikipedia on “binge drinking”.
    a “binge” btw is not what you might think. this is currently defined in the research / epidemiology fields as 5 (male) or 4 (female) drinks in about a 2 hr interval. In other words what you or I might just call “drinking” or “getting drunk”. we are not talking a Bukowskian binge here…
    Read over this stuff and you will find that the naive view that the US has “more” alcohol-related problems than countries with a more liberal tradition of introducing adolescents to alcohol is pretty much false.
    I’m willing to entertain the notion that we have more driving-under-the-influence problems, but this likely has to do with societal dependence on public versus personal transportation and walkable versus unwalkable lifestyles


  7. Windy Says:

    As a parent of a 15 and 13 year old this subject hits close to home. And after reading both sides of this argument I am still at a loss as to what tack to take. Partying on back unmaintained roads (this is a very rural area) is popular here. Driving inevitably follows to get home. We are very open with our kids about drugs and alcohol. We try to steer them towards responsible friends. We allow occasional tastes as both my husband and I drink wine at dinner. The liability of parties in this house scare me, otherwise that would might be the course to take. They don’t go to any parties yet, but they will, and my oldest starts driving this summer. Friends of ours used to let their kids party in their cabin on a pond across the street from their house. I always thought they were crazy based on the liability issue alone.


  8. DrugMonkey Says:

    crossposting my comment from here:
    For example, in the UK, the law does not prohibit giving kids (over 5) alcohol at all. It just prohibits the sale of alcohol to children. If I remember correctly, kids are allowed to be served alcohol in licensed premises from the age of 16 upwards, provided it’s purchased by an adult and served with food. At home, you can give your kids booze if you want once they’re past the age of 5.
    This site claims:
    Where, when and if parents may give alcohol to their children varies by state. In some states, parents may supervise their children’s alcohol use in restaurants, whereas other states restrict parent-supervised alcohol use to the home or prohibit it altogether.
    This handy chart also indicates that some states allow legal-age spouses to provide alcohol to their under-age spouse.


  9. acmegirl Says:

    I would definitely be for some version of a Good Samaritan law. I grew up with very strict parents, and I spent a lot of energy trying to do things and go places behind their backs. Thinking back, I feel that the most dangerous part of that pattern of deception is that if anything bad had happened, nobody would have known where I was. I would have been much safer if I hadn’t felt the need to sneak around. My husband, on the other hand, grew up with parents who allowed their home to be the social hub for his group of friends, and this included some drinking. His parents always knew what was going on because it was right under their noses, and when things got out of hand they told the kids to go home to bed. He grew up in the UK, though, so the liability issues were different, and none of those kids was driving – they didn’t need to and didn’t have their own cars. We have tried to foster an open and honest dialogue with our kids about alcohol, and would like to extend that to having an open house policy, as well. But I do worry about getting sued. We have a few more years to figure it out, and I hope all the hot-heads out there will begin to take a more pragmatic approach in the meantime.

    What if a drunken kid falls out of the 2nd or 3rd story window of the responsible parent’s house? What if someone drowns in a pool? What if the parent doesn’t notice a rape occurring in the basement? Things like these do happen at safe parties a non-trivial number of times.

    Accidents can happen whether or not alcohol is involved. I don’t really know how liability works in the case that a guest of my child falls out a window or drowns in the pool when drinking is not involved. I do know that kids can get pretty rowdy without alcohol, so it seems like you just have to include a requirement that parents are actually supervising the party, not participating in it.


  10. McDuff Says:

    I agree with the other posters from Europe. The idea that you even have to discuss whether or not parents can let 17 or 18 year olds drink, responsibly, under supervision, in their own homes is absolutely absurd. You don’t need a “Good Samaritan” law to softly softly suggest ever so possibly that arresting a parent for letting their teenaged have a vodka and coke might not be the best course of action, you need to find the deranged people who think this is a good idea and have them locked up for being bonkers.


  11. After reading this and examining my background, I just found some pictures of the keg party PharmDad sponsored for my HS graduation (I was 17). While we didn’t have the handheld BAC meters available today, my buds were pretty responsible and hung out until they felt able to drive home. As did my Eastern European family, we’ll probably take a very European view of alcohol with our kid because we are also committed to realistically instilling responsible behavior regarding other things like sex.
    I meant to comment when you put up this post but almost the same day the Boulder (CO) Police Chief was quoted as saying how the 21 drinking age in that college town was pretty ineffective:

    “All of the efforts we have tried to implement over the years, including education, awareness programs, heavy enforcement, etc., have had little effect on preventing 18- to 20-year-old adults from drinking,” he wrote. “What we’ve done is helped create an underground culture that encourages binge drinking without any oversight or supervision.”

    These comments came from his interview in a ’60 Minutes’ segment to appear later this spring – perhaps we’ll be having another discussion then.


  12. viperfan Says:

    Teen Drinking and Military
    If you can get married at 18, vote at 18, and go to war at 18, then why can’t you drink at 18? Teens are always going to break the rules, then again some might not. Sixteen percent of eighth graders, 33 percent of high school sophomores, and 44 percent of high school seniors report recent drinking. That means that there is still a good percent that kids will try something. I don�t think that the younger kids like 16 and under should be able to drink but I�m saying that won�t stop anything. I say if you are of the age of 18 you should be aloud to drink, if you can go and die in a war at the age why can�t you have a drink?
    The people of We don�t serve teens say, �that it is a big risk of having teens drink�. The minimum drinking age has prevented an estimated 22,000 alcohol-related driving deaths�about 900 lives a year, but how ever, since war began (3/19/03): estimated over 100,000 have died. So why do they say teen drinking is very bad? Is it because a few drink and drive? Yeah I say that�s wrong but still compared to the deaths of kids in war� that�s nothing. If they some how prevent kids from drinking and driving I would say its fine to lower the age to 18.
    Even know the age is 21 to drink, 60% of high school kids say that it is easy to get alcohol. Some of the kids just do it because it�s a risk; some kids think of it as a challenge, if they can get it why not drink it? Some other kids drink because maybe they have grown up in a bad family like their parents drink non stop or the kid might get beat or something like that, so they never really had parents be there to tell them what is right from wrong. Another thing is the people they hang around, If they go to parties or �get together�s� often the more then 80% of the time they are going to try drinking of some sort or a drug. If you ask me I am pretty sure the parents would rather them drink then do drugs.
    �Intoxication and hangover problems (the immediate effects of drinking) include poor decision-making, greater risk of sexual assault, injuries, drink driving, aggressive behavior and violence, and poor school performance. These problems can occur for anyone who drinks to the point of getting drunk on any single occasion, like a Saturday night party. They can also affect those who are in the company of people who are drinking�. Ok cool so they might not do well in school, what about the kids that drop out, to go to the military? No one is trying to stop them, and they just might go and maybe get shot.
    McCradell, president of Middlebury College, states that dropping the drinking age brings their alcohol consumption out of hiding where their parents can monitor it and teach their children responsibility; and he also suggests that once a child hits the age of 18, they would be able to take a class similar to driver’s Ed but about alcohol education instead and earn a license to buy and use alcohol. Just like if you get too many tickets for your car, if you are caught drinking irresponsibly you get your license taken away. Also, if you have gotten in trouble for underage drinking in the past, then you cannot receive a license until you indeed turn 21.


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