As parents, we worry constantly about our children’s safety, especially when they grow old enough to be influenced by friends, the media, the internet and other adults.

The State of Connecticut’s Coalition to Stop Underage Drinking estimates that high school student drinkers consume 35 percent of all wine coolers and 1.1 billion cans of beer annually. Subsequent risks and effects of underage drinking include an increase in injuries and fatalities, sexual offenses, and youthful involvement with illegal drugs.

The New Canaan perspective

The media and some adults (including parents) regard drinking (and recently the use of marijuana) as an essential element of socializing. Additionally, some underage drinkers obtain alcohol from their parents, from their own homes or from other adults who legitimize alcohol consumption as a rite of passage for minors. An article published in The American Journal of Psychiatry indicates adolescents may be more vulnerable to alcohol and drug addictions than adults.

With a recent nationwide and local surge in drug overdoses, some of which involved youths that grew up in New Canaan, both parents and their children must work together to reduce instances of underage substance use.

Did you know that?

Alcohol is the most widely abused substance in New Canaan.

A child who gets through age 21 without smoking, using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol will probably never do so.

Children who drink alcoholic beverages before age 15 are four times more likely to develop a lifelong dependency on alcohol.

Heroin popularity and use has increased dramatically (one study shows an increase of 40 percent) with some addicts as young as 18.

Most underage drinking is in the form of binge drinking, which kills adolescent brain cells.

Nationwide each year about 5,000 youths under age 21 die as the result of underage drinking.

Unlike most adults teens can’t control impulses and make smart decisions.

Teens are especially susceptible to addictions.

The No. 1 deterrent to a child’s use of alcohol/drugs is parental disapproval.

Parental liability and responsibility

Civil Consequences:

When a parent makes alcohol available to minors, and this action results in injury to third parties or causes damage to property, Connecticut courts have frequently held that the parent is liable.

Connecticut courts have found that a parent can be held liable as a social host where the parent was present on the premises at the time the alcohol was ingested and where the parent knew of and/or supplied alcohol to the minor. A parent who is found legally responsible under a “social host” theory of liability may have to pay significant money damages.

In addition, a court may hold a parent liable even if the parent is absent from the scene of consumption but knows of the minor’s dangerous propensity with regard to alcohol and/or drugs but fails to exercise control over a child.

Criminal Consequences:

A parent that hosts a youth party where alcohol or drugs are consumed can be arrested for delivery of alcohol to minors, risk of injury to a minor and/or a variety of other offenses. Some of these offenses are felonies.

Parents:

Have you had a conversation with your child about alcohol use, drug use and the related risks?

Have you made it clear to your child that your expectation is that they will not use alcohol or drugs?

Are you a positive role model to your child?

Have you discussed with your child what they will do if they end up at a youth party and need help?

Do you actively monitor your child’s activities and friends to help them make safe, smart choices?

Have you encouraged your child to be independent, but set limitations?

A minor’s liability

In addition to holding adults responsible for knowingly providing alcohol to minors, minors themselves can be found liable. In addition to the risk of abuse and addiction, the penalties for possession of illegal drugs and alcohol are serious. A minor that hosts or attends a youth party where alcohol or drugs are consumed can be charged with a variety of offenses with penalties that range from an infraction (a fine), a driver’s license suspension, probation or possible jail time.

Alcohol, drugs & sexual assault

Alcohol and drug use contribute to unwanted sexual encounters between minors because they impair cognitive ability to recognize and resist sexual aggression. Drug and alcohol use influences the way behavior and body language is perceived. Generally, someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs can’t give consent. There must always be active consent (unhindered by any alcohol or drugs) on both sides. This can lead perpetrators to assume that victims want to have sex. Most sexual assaults that our department investigates involve the use of alcohol or drugs.

Prevention, enforcement and education

In response to the heroin epidemic our department became one of the first police departments in Fairfield County to be equipped with Naloxone, which is used to counter the effects of an opioid overdose. We hope we never have to use it.

The surge in the misuse of prescription drugs drove us to become one of the first police departments in Fairfield County to install a drop-box in our front lobby. To date we have taken in and destroyed over 1,000 pounds of unwanted prescription drugs.

Our department responds to and investigates many youth parties each year. While all illegal drugs imaginable are available in our town, alcohol continues to be the drug of choice. We are making the investigation of youth parties where alcohol and drugs are consumed a priority. Those hosting and attending such parties can expect to be held accountable.

In addition to arresting or fining those present at youth parties, we are launching a diversionary program. Certain offenders will have the opportunity to complete a New Canaan-based course on the dangers of underage use of alcohol/drugs. Successful completion of this course will result in no arrest or fine. We hope that this program provides an educational component that results in smart, safe choices.

If you see or know something, say something

Our priority is ensuring that our youth are safe and that obtaining illegal drugs in our town becomes more difficult. To meet this goal, we will aggressively investigate all reports of illegal drug sales. We will give the highest priority to investigations that involve drug sales near or in our schools and/or that involve youths.

Often we are able to solve crimes when we receive information from the community. If you have any information, no matter how insignificant you think it may be, about drug sales or illegal alcohol use, please call the New Canaan Police Tip Line at 203-594-3544 and leave us your tip.

In addition, you can forward anonymous tips to our department by downloading the “MYPD” application in the iPhone or Android marketplace. After downloading the application search for “New Canaan” get connected and then go to “submit tip.”

It takes a village

Clearly, underage substance use is a complex issue that can’t be solved by the police. Reducing the use of alcohol and drugs by our youth requires a community-based effort that includes education, prevention and enforcement. Efforts that include groups such as the New Canaan Coalition, which comprises community members that care (from Town leaders to faith groups to residents); have formed to implement a community-wide effort to reduce the risks our Town’s youth face.

Yet, the most influential group, the parents of our town’s children, must step forward and make the proper, yet unpopular choices when it comes to preventing the underage use of alcohol and drugs. Preventing a child’s death or addiction makes the unpopular choices seem easy.

Ignoring or marginalizing the risks of underage substance abuse leads to tragedies. By working together as a community we can make a difference. Saving just one child will make our efforts invaluable.

Leon M. Krolikowski is police chief of New Canaan.