Saturday, 10 October 2015

Alcohol permission slips and teenage parties: What are some parents thinking?

'Secondary supply' legislation now exists in almost every state and territory across the country, with SA now the only jurisdiction not to have laws that protect a parent's right to say whether or not another adult provides alcohol to their child. As the ADF states in their factsheet on the subject - "There have been a number of cases in Australia where a person has suffered injuries or died as a result of drinking too much alcohol after being supplied with it by an adult who was not their parent. Regulating private supply of alcohol aims to stop that happening by deterring adults from supplying alcohol to young people without the approval from their parent."

Across Australia a person who is under the age of 18 is not breaking the law if they drink alcohol on private property. However, now, in almost all states and territories, the person who supplied them with the alcohol could be breaking the law—unless they are the child’s parent or guardian and act in a responsible manner. It has taken a lot of work to get this legislation up and running in some states, with the ACT and WA only recently introducing laws in this area. One of the reasons that governments (particularly WA's) have hesitated in introducing such legislation is that they say these laws are difficult to police and there is no evidence to support that such laws actually reduce underage drinking. As I've always said, that is not necessarily the point here - what these laws do is to support parents and allow them to say to their teen that they can't put on a party and allow alcohol because it is against the law - it's as simple as that! Whether the laws have teeth or not is irrelevant!

In 2011 the Victorian Government introduced secondary supply legislation after years of lobbying and I, along with many others, anxiously looked forward to seeing how this would change the partying landscape in that state. From November of that year it became illegal for anyone to serve alcohol to anyone under 18 years old unless their parent or guardian had given permission. Unfortunately, in response, within weeks we started to see parents writing up letters with tear-off slips at the bottom that were handed out to prospective partygoers that asked their parents to sign their name and give permission for their teen to drink at the party they were hosting. Basically parents were covering their backs - instead of attempting to monitor teenage parties and gatherings and try to prevent underage drinking, it was much easier just to roll over and accept that drinking was inevitable and to cover themselves legally (whether a permission slip actually does that or not is another matter altogether)!

What I find most distressing about this is that it is such a huge slap in the face for those parents who lobbied so hard to get these laws into place. In Victoria one of the main groups to push this legislation was the Leigh Clark Foundation. For those of you who don't know, 15 year-old Leigh Clark died in August 1999 as the result of massive alcohol overdose. He and a group of friends drank a large amount of 'Imitation Vodka Essence' which had been purchased by a parent and given to two other boys in the group. When the new laws were passed the Foundation published the following statement on their website:

"Previously, any person, in the secrecy of their own home, could legally give your child an unlimited quantity of alcohol without your knowledge. This law takes away that legal 'right'. Now such uncaring, irresponsible or downright unscrupulous behaviour can be challenged. Anyone who supplies alcohol to your child without your permission simply does not have your child's interests at heart. Now that person, whatever their motivation, can now be charged with supplying alcohol to your child without your permission. That is what this law is about."

I don't think the Clarks would ever have imagined that once the laws were introduced that, instead of embracing them and using them to prevent underage drinking, some parents would actually try to find ways of bypassing them! It really is such an insult ...

I totally get that permission slips may be the best way to go for 18th birthday parties - so many parents I've spoken to around the country struggle with how to deal with these events. It's that year where you have that split, some who can legally drink and others who can't - trying to navigate through that minefield and following the law is difficult - getting permission from parents of 17 year-olds (or at least letting them know that alcohol will be available and allowing them to make the decision around whether their child will drink or not) may be the best way forward. Unfortunately, this is not what is happening in Victoria however (and I must say that that state is the absolute worst offender in this area as far as I can tell), with permission slips even being handed out for 15th birthday parties!

There are a number of issues with these permission slips and I could go on for hours about this but essentially here are just a couple of my major concerns:
  • they put great pressure on those parents who don't want to let their 15 or 16 year-old to drink alcohol at a teenage party. Many parents that use these slips will not allow partygoers to attend unless a signed slip is presented either prior to the event or at the door on the night. It's really difficult for any parent to say "No, I'm not signing" and know that that will mean their child is now excluded from a social event
  • many teens are simply forging their parent's signature, with many parents I speak to totally unaware that these forms even exist. Although it would be difficult to prosecute in this area, if a parent is going to ask for other parents to sign a permission slip, they really do have a legal obligation to ensure that the signature is real
  • basically a parent who collects 100 permission slips from teenagers attending a party they are hosting is accepting some degree of legal responsibility for those young people and their drinking behaviour - how insane is that? Essentially the Victorian legislation treats the party hosts as a 'licensee' for the evening, so all the 'duty of care' issues come into play - that little bit of paper with a parent's signature on it has potential litigation written all over it!
The ACT and WA have only just introduced secondary supply legislation and both have the caveat that parents can give their permission for their child to drink, handing responsibility over to another adult if they wish. I'm certainly not saying that that shouldn't be the case but handing over responsibility of a teen's drinking to another parent (who you usually don't know) hosting a party for 40, 80, 100 or 200 teenagers is fraught with problems.

I hope we don't see parents in those jurisdictions go down the same path as Victorians but unfortunately I'm sure we will ... sadly we keep seeing parents of 15 and 16 year-olds who are reluctant to actually parent, particularly in this area, it's just too hard and full of conflict. Instead they want to be their child's best friend, something that most teens have an abundance of ... Your child only has one set of parents and it's vital that you try to be the best parent you can be - unfortunately your teen is not necessarily going to like you for your efforts in this area at the time, but I can pretty well guarantee you that they'll thank you later!

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