Teens, parties and parents and 'duty of care': One Dad's experience

So many things can go wrong when hosting a teen party, with even the best planned event sometimes going 'pear-shaped'! Ensuring that all partygoers are safe is paramount and that can be really difficult when you're dealing with teens who are 'missing a piece of their brain' ... The dramatic increase in pre-parties (where young people drink just enough to avoid detection when they enter the main party of the night) makes this even more difficult for those putting on parties. As I've said many times before, the most important thing parents can do is to find out as much about the night your child is planning and then drop them off and pick them up. They're not going to like it and it's not going to be a pleasant experience for you every weekend but at least you'll be more aware of what they're up to and that they're as safe as possible. But even if you do that there are no guarantees ...

I'm going to let the following piece written by a Dad who contacted me recently speak for itself ...

"I frame this as an open letter. It is not a witch hunt or a comment on behaviours, morals or values. It is intended to raise an issue, generate some discussion, visibility and opinion, and maybe some solutions. Please read on.
I recently escorted my 16 year-old daughter and a group of friends to a party. It was about 10.30pm on a Saturday night. The party was at a local venue, and intended to continue until 11.30pm. Our late arrival was due to the girls participation in an event which ended around 9.30pm.
As we approached the venue, social media feeds, into which teenagers seem to be permanently connected, generated noise as to whether the party was still in progress. It appeared that something had happened. Exactly what, was unspecified. As we approached the venue, we happened across a boy, alone, of similar age to my girls – clearly intoxicated, or under the influence of something – wandering unsteadily and aimlessly. The girls checked whether he was ok, and without much thought we continued on to the venue.
At the venue, it was clear that the party was over. Security guards prominently blocked the entrance. On explaining that I was delivering my daughter and her friends to the party, I was informed that the party had been shut down. On further enquiry, I was told that a boy had jumped/fallen/been pushed from a balcony into the water below. He was taken off in an ambulance (but, with some injuries, was now ok). Furthermore, a number of kids were intoxicated and "on drugs" and so, the party was shut down.
As we walked away, my initial reaction was that this was entirely appropriate. Break the (explicitly stated) rules, and bear the consequences.
The girls said that we should check on the boy we had encountered earlier. We wandered into the park alongside the venue. Very prominent, was a group (probably 20-30) of teenagers. Amongst the group were a number of friends/classmates/peers of my daughter and her friends. It was blatantly clear that alcohol and/or other substances were present in a significant proportion of this group. Just as obvious were a number of kids who were sober.
My daughter asked me to stand back, (which I initially did) as she approached the group. She was greeted warmly. On seeing me (despite remaining detached), a large proportion of the group, almost magically, dispersed. An encounter with an adult was definitely not desirable. To them I represented authority, and consequences. The throng evaporated. Only a single boy remained. Not by his own volition, but because he was flat on the ground, comatose, unmoving. I approached and prodded. As he groggily came to life, we checked whether he was ok (clearly not); was someone looking after him (clearly not – the group was more focused on self-preservation and escaping from authority); was someone picking him up (no coherent answer). The other kids were nervously observing from a distance. Eventually, a 'friend' approached (full credit to whoever this was). Together, we were able to ascertain that "someone" would look after him, and that '"someone's" parents were coming to pick him/them up. I was relatively satisfied that the situation was safe.
This sets the scene. A bunch of teenagers – some sober, many not – unstewarded in a public park at 11pm on a Saturday night.
The purpose of writing this is not to be moralistic or judgemental. Rather, it is to raise a bunch of issues. I do this from the perspective of allowing our kids to develop within a safe environment; to extend and test boundaries; to balance authority with freedom; and as a father.
Where does duty of care end? Technically, there had been no breach.
  • The venue abided by clearly stated rules
  • The rules were broken
  • There were consequences
However, there were also unintended consequences…
Unintended that: A large contingent of under 18s – children - had been ejected from a venue, where they had adult eyes on them. They were now unsupervised, in an uncontrolled space, late at night. Further, a significant proportion of these children were in no state to be in control of themselves, or able to understand the implications of the prevailing situation. They were literally just wandering the streets. They had been cast out from a venue early, and not necessarily by choice. I assume that if the party had continued to its designated end point, most of this contingent would have been picked up by parents, or had arrangements to get home. Also, as a parent, I would have assumed that my own children would, in similar circumstances, be in one safe place, at least for the intended duration of the party.

Of course, any of these teenagers could have left the party of their own volition. Intoxicated or not, they could have wandered the streets themselves. However, forcing them, as a group, out of a party, was not their choice or desire. Is there a collective duty of care, to ensure that there is some degree of safe oversight until the designated end time for the party? This should operate independently of whether the party ended prematurely or not.

Several questions:
  • Where were the parents who were hosting the party? Shouldn’t they have remained until the designated end time, to ensure that the children were safely picked up (they may have been inside the venue, but to us, they were not present)? Maybe they should have alerted parents/carers directly, that the party had been terminated. Perhaps they should take some responsibility to ensure that their guests left in a safe way (rather than just left)
  • Although not breaking any rules, should or could the venue have corralled the kids and assumed a role in ensuring that they were passed on to safe hands? I know this opens a can of worms, with respect to liability, legal obligation etc. So, removing a potential issue is in their own interest (even if not the most responsible action)
  • What happens to parents who had an expectation that their children would be at the venue until the designated finish time? I personally operate under this assumption. In this case, my daughter would have been ejected, and would probably have ended up in the park, along with the large group mentioned above
  • How should kids who are intoxicated, or under the influence of other substances, be handled? I have been told, that kids often arrive at parties already in this state. Should they be breathalysed or checked on entry? If they are positive, then what? Should parents be notified (after all, they are minors)?
  • How do we create a safer environment? We will not be able to eliminate the alcohol or other drugs, despite any amount of effort. Can we make sure that kids – both sober and not – are never cast loose? That at all times they are under care? That they are not ever left without eyes on them?
  • There is a tension between duty of care and obligation. No one in a carer position (the venue, the parents) has done anything 'wrong'. However, for our children, the outcome is a gap in the system. This has put them at risk

All this opens a host of further questions and issues. I don't have solutions – just thoughts, which I hope sparks reaction, discussion and dialogue.

To reiterate: How far does duty of care extend - to the limit of the rules, or further? Anything, which will lead to action or guidance would be a good outcome. This situation is not unique. It is not a one off. It will arise again. There will be more parties, events, situations. Our children will push limits and boundaries. They will continue to drink/take drugs/put themselves at risk. How do we create a safer framework to them and for us? How do we balance obligation, liability, the law and individual and collective duty of care?"

I'd love to know people's thoughts about this issue. Could the parents hosting the party really have done more? How do you realistically get contact numbers of everyone attending a teenage party when you're looking at 100-200 invitees? How many of the partygoers turned up to the event already intoxicated? If they did, how did they get there? What does a host of a party do with a drunk 16 year-old that turns up at their door? Do you turn them away and run the risk of something terrible happening to them? If not, what do you do? The list of questions goes on and on ...

What this father discovered that night is not news to anyone who works with young people ... many teens (some of them ridiculously young) are wandering around the streets of cities and towns across the country on a Saturday night with their parents completely unaware of what they're doing. Yes, the people hosting the parties have a duty of care here but so to do the parents of those invited to attend ... As I said, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.


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