Parents Responsible


Are parents responsible for teen drinking, even if they don't know about it?
Liability Laws Make Parents Responsible for Underage Drinking in Their Home

Liability Laws Make Parents Responsible for Underage Drinking in Their Home

Parents who allow their teens to have friends over to drink, thinking it’s a safe way to keep them off the roads, may be surprised to find they are subject to liability laws that make them vulnerable to lawsuits, fines and jail time.

Parents in some states can be liable even if they were not aware that drinking was going on in their home, according to the Associated Press. One Stanford University professor was arrested in November after his 17-year-old son had a party in the basement. The professor, Bill Burnett, said he had forbidden alcohol at the party and had twice checked on the teens. He spent one night in jail and was booked on 44 counts of suspicion of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Each count carries up to a $2,500 fine and almost a year in jail.

Eight states have “social host” laws that make parents liable if underage guests in their home are drinking, even if no harm comes to anyone, the AP reports. In some of the states, parents are allowed to serve alcohol to their own children in certain situations.

In 16 other states, laws hold parents responsible for underage drinking in some circumstances, such as if a teenager who drank in their home was in a car accident.

Research conducted by Students Against Destructive Decisions, and co-sponsored by the insurance company Liberty Mutual, found 41 percent of teens say their parents allow them to go to parties where alcohol is being served, compared with 36 percent two years ago.

Are parents responsible for teen drinking, even if they don't know about it?
Bill Burnett was arrested for unknowingly allowing alcohol at a house party for his son's football team. He and his wife Cynthia talk with TODAY's Matt Lauer about the complicated issue of teen drinking.

Just as kids will be kids, teens will be teens.

And so it was that at a party of about 40 high school students in Menlo Park, Calif., last month, the music was too loud and the teens – celebrating the last football game of the season – got rowdy.

So rowdy that someone called the police, who came to the house and determined that some of the kids, ages 17 and 18, were, according to a police spokesperson, "displaying the signs of being under the influence of an alcoholic beverage."

The police then arrested dad and Stanford professor Bill Burnett, who along with wife Cynthia was hosting the party for their son, a high school senior. The charge against Burnett: 44 counts of contributing to a minor’s delinquency. Burnett spent a night in jail and faces a year’s sentence and/or a pricey fine.

The kicker of the story? Burnett and his wife insist they did not know there was alcohol in their house. In fact, they told TODAY, they tried to do everything possible to make sure there wouldn't be drinking at the party.

"We put really clear rules in place and we were patrolling the party," Bill Burnett told Matt Lauer. "My wife and I were both at the house. We were upstairs. The kids were downstairs in the basement. So we were there the whole time, I went through the party a couple times. I brought chocolate chip cookies. I was about to bring them brownies when the police came."

Lauer asked Cynthia Burnett if, in hindsight, there was anything she could have done differently.

"I don't think there is anything else we could have done short of sitting there in the middle of the party," she replied. "You talk with your kids about how to be safe, how to make good choices, how to take care of each other. You let them know that you're there, both supervising and in case they get-- they do make bad choices."

But good intentions aren't enough in the eyes of the law, legal analyst Star Jones said on TODAY.

"They were absolutely wrong," Jones told Lauer. By law in California and many other states, parents are responsible for what happens to teens under their roof -- even if they're clueless. "Your job as a parent is to supervise and exercise control and protection and when you don't, the police have to step in, especially when there's alcohol involved."

The Burnetts' case have many parents wondering if they're doing enough -- or if you can ever do enough to keep teens from drinking at parties.

In a story for the Palo Alto Patch, writer Lisen Stromberg says that Burnett, apparently, had done everything he could to keep the party safe and the teenagers in line.

He told the neighbors there would be a party just so they knew he knew what was going on. He and his wife (who'd just had major back surgery) were there to “keep an eye on things.” (Rumor has it he was baking chocolate chips cookies to give to the kids when the police pounded on his front door). He did everything right, and still it all fell apart.

Stromberg raises the question: What’s a good parent to do?

If we want to celebrate these special events in our teenaged children’s lives, we place ourselves at risk. So is the answer, no parties? Doesn’t that place our children at greater risk? Let’s face it, as much as we might like to ignore or deny it, our kids are going to find a way to party.

What do you think? Should parents be held responsible for teen drinking at their house, even if they didn’t condone it?