As efforts to prevent underage drinking gear up heading into prom and graduation season, parents as well as teenagers find themselves in the spotlight.
The Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County see parents as key to their mission to curb drinking among teenagers, and so many of their programs target parents as a partner in protecting their children.
“Parents have to have the hard conversations,” said Lisa Adler, president of UPC. “They need to be the role models and the educators on substance abuse.”
UPC, a nonprofit that pulls together community partners dedicated to preventing substance abuse by teens and young adults in Fairfax County, presses parents to open a dialogue with their children.
The organization facilitates those conversations through events like the “Perils of College Drinking Culture,” aimed at high school seniors and their parents, to open parents eyes to the pressures exerted on young people.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving provides resources in the same vein, encouraging parents to set the precedent for responsible treatment of alcohol.
“The top people kids listen to is their parents, even though parents might not think they hear them,” said Chris Konschak, the manager of MADD Virginia. “Have that conversation with your kids about alcohol, and follow through with your actions.”
Yet too often, said UPC deputy executive director Sara Freund, parents treat alcohol as a “rite of passage” into adulthood, right along with prom and graduation, which sends the wrong message to teens.
According to most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, of people aged 12-20 who reported drinking alcohol, almost one-fourth (23 percent) reported receiving alcohol from their parents or other adult family members the last time they drank.
The survey, released in September 2013 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, also showed that 86 percent of underage drinkers reported last using alcohol in a home - either their own or someone else’s.
“When you provide alcohol to your kids, even one drink, what that tells your child is, ‘Forget the law,’” Freund said. “And it makes them think that you’re approving of alcohol in other times and other locations.”
Adler concurred, saying that a consistent message can prevent teens from traveling the slippery slope of alcohol use that can lead to alcohol poisoning, poor decision-making, drunk driving and more.
“How many times have I heard, ‘My kid’s a good kid! My kid’s a good kid!’” Adler said. “They’re all good kids, but they can make some bad choices, especially when alcohol gets involved.”
UPC’s “Parents Who Host, Lose the Most” public awareness campaign focuses specifically on parental responsibility - and liability - when it comes to providing alcohol to teens.
Under Virginia law, it is illegal not only to provide alcohol to minors but also to have minors consuming alcohol in your residence or under your supervision, whether you technically provided the alcohol or not. Penalties for violation include a $2,500 fine for each underage drinker and up to 12 months in jail, according to UPC.
Since “Parents Who Host, Lose the Most” began eight years ago, UPC has a put on a public relations blitz each May to coincide with prom and end-of-year celebrations, sending flyers home with students, hanging banners at county schools and more. In the past eight years, UPC has distributed more than 250,000 informational cards to educate parents on the dangers of condoning teen alcohol consumption.
The potential consequences were on display last Saturday night. A 48-year-old woman from Great Falls was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor after a 15-year-old girl was found unconscious at a teen party in her home, according to Fairfax County police.
Police responded to a report of an alcohol overdose at the home around 11 p.m., where a girl had been found unconscious on a couch. The girl was taken to the hospital; her parents later picked her up and she is healthy, according to police.
“We don’t know the details of this particular situation, but it should certainly serve as a wake-up call for the community,” said Sara Freund, deputy executive director of the Unified Prevention Coalition. “We are trying to increase awareness, but it’s going to take a groundswell of support to really change the culture.”