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Are you responsible?

The state's social-host law holds adults responsible if minors drink on their property. Does it go too far - or not far enough?

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / August 28, 2010

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Whenever she has heard of an episode of underage drinking this summer, especially if it took place in a house where adults were allegedly present, Kathi Meyer has taken it personally. Very personally.

“I’ve spoken at every single school from here to New Hampshire,’’ says Meyer, of Plainville, a mixture of anger and incredulity in her voice. “It makes my stomach turn that they just forget.’’

The story she has told to parents and students at more than 60 schools is a heartbreaking one. It’s about her 17-year-old daughter Taylor, who on Oct. 20, 2008, was found drowned in a Norfolk swamp.

Taylor had stumbled into the swamp after a night of binge drinking that included a party at the Wrentham home of one of her friends. Meyer has alleged in a wrongful death lawsuit that the friend’s mother knew that Taylor and other teenagers were drinking in her basement. (The woman was not charged criminally and, in response to the lawsuit, has denied responsibility in Taylor’s death.)

While Meyer has a personal reason for feeling disheartened and apprehensive at the recent spate of stories about underage drinking episodes, she’s not the only one who is concerned. As summer wanes and school beckons, there’s often a surge of teen drinking parties — a worrisome prospect at a time when there are signs that adults are failing to maintain control and that teens are finding new ways to outwit the grown-ups.

In the past few months, parents have faced charges in highly publicized underage drinking cases in Cohasset, Marshfield, and North Andover, and this week, a 19-year-old Sudbury man was charged with providing alcohol at his home on Aug. 12 to an 18-year-old who died in a car crash several hours later. Those cases have added to a long list of underage drinking parties that have been broken up by police over the past year in communities as various as Norwell, Boxford, Revere, Hudson, Quincy, and Salem, N.H.

In virtually every case, the adults involved pleaded not guilty and insisted they did not know that underage drinking was going on and would not have condoned it if they had.

Whatever the facts of particular cases, experts say those episodes raise questions about how many parents understand their legal exposure under the “social host’’ law. As amended in 2000, the law makes it a crime for adults to provide alcohol to underage guests or allow them to drink on any property under their control. Adults can face a $2,000 fine or up to a year in jail, or both, if underage drinking (the legal drinking age is 21) is found to have taken place in their home. Massachusetts is one of many states that has such a law.

“Do we have enough societal awareness about the social host law? No, clearly not,’’ says Robert M. Delahunt Jr., a former prosecutor who is now a partner at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo. “And kids are getting wiser as to how to navigate house party rules, even if there are rules. Kids showing up with beer cans is sometimes the norm, but most often now it’s the rage that kids will show up with liquor in a water bottle.’’

While he says adults should be extremely vigilant when they host teenage parties, Delahunt says that the social host law is so broadly worded that it sometimes ensnares innocent parents.

“That ‘allowing’ is a really broad new verb added to the statute,’’ he maintains. “What does ‘allowing’ mean? You could be at one end of the house, the kids are in the basement, you think they’re watching a movie, somebody brings a water bottle with a large amount of vodka, and you’ve ‘allowed’ it. There are genuine instances where parents just don’t know, because the kids have thwarted them.’’

Delahunt argues that the Legislature should consider establishing a “first-offender’’ category akin to that for first OUI offenses, unless a death or serious injury occurs. Parents could be put on probation and required to attend an alcohol-awareness program.

Dr. John R. Knight, founder and director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Children’s Hospital Boston, agrees that there are cases when adults are legitimately unaware that minors are drinking in their home. In such cases, he says, “I would not want to see those parents really punished for that.’’ The primary focus, Knight says, should be on the adults who supplied the alcohol. Several studies have found that nearly one-quarter of underage drinkers report that their parents or other adult family members supplied alcohol to them and their friends, Knight notes.

Few are more outspoken about the social host law and the issue of underage drinking than Boston attorney Richard P. Campbell, the founder of the law firm Campbell Campbell Edwards & Conroy. He has an encyclopedic recall of alcohol-related teen fatalities over the past two decades, and he has woven them into the roughly 125 speeches that he has given on the subject in Massachusetts and beyond, often in tandem with Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.

The blunt-spoken Campbell (who represents Kathi Meyer in the wrongful death lawsuit in connection with daughter Taylor’s death) believes the penalties for adults should be stiffened, and that criminal court judges need to stop handing out community service.

“The penalties that are meted out now are not strong enough to make people really step back and think about this,’’ Campbell says. “I would ratchet up the maximum potential penalties significantly. If you’re in an automobile and you drive drunk and you kill somebody, the penalties are huge. If you’re an adult and you feed alcohol to a kid and then that kid goes and kills somebody, how is that different?’’

Even as newspapers and TV newscasts are constantly peppered with stories about underage drinking, there are few signs that combating it is a top legislative priority. Nor, in the view of some, is the issue of alcohol abuse in general as prominent on the national radar screen as they believe it should be.

Dr. Ralph Hingson, director of the Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, contends that a major public-awareness campaign is needed to bring about the kinds of changes that occurred with drunk driving, which used to be punished with a slap on the wrist, and cigarette smoking, which was long seen as either harmless or as affecting only smokers.

The urgency of that need, they say, is underscored by a growing body of new research that spell outs the serious health consequences for underage drinkers. Apart from the risk of death or serious injury posed by drunk driving, studies increasingly find that underage drinking can lead to permanent impairment of memory, ability to focus, and problem-solving among adolescents.

“The developing brain of an adolescent responds differently to alcohol than the brain of an adult does,’’ says Knight. “When you expose the adolescent brain to alcohol, you change the brain — and you change it for good.’’

A slight glimmer of good news can be found in the fact that the rate of underage drinking has declined over the past two decades. In 1991, a Centers for Disease Control survey found that the percentage of people under the legal age who reported drinking alcohol in the previous month was 50.8 percent; last year it was 41.8 percent.

By other measures, the problem is painfully acute. A 2008 survey found nearly one in five Americans aged 12 to 20 had engaged in binge drinking (defined as five or more drinks on one occasion) in the previous 30 days.

“We used to think of alcoholism as a problem of middle age, but the problems begin much earlier,’’ says Hingson.

Some parents, hoping to win brownie points with their kids, think they can create a controlled environment for underage drinking on, say, prom night by taking car keys away from underage guests. But experts say that often leads to sexual assaults (“Girls get victimized,’’ Knight says) and fights. Partly, that is because most underage drinkers do not drink in moderation but rather with the goal of getting drunk. And whereas adults who drink might grow sleepy, adolescents who drink become more active, according to Knight. “There are many ways to die [while drunk], and it’s not just when you’re driving,’’ he says.

Meyer knows that all too well. And as painful as it is to tell Taylor’s story, she plans to keep telling it to as many teenagers — and their parents — as she can reach.

“You hear so many stories of so many parents still condoning it,’’ she says. “They need to understand there is no safe environment for someone under 21 to be drinking.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.