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Keeping our Communities Healthy & Safe: Preventing Underage Drinking

By Meghan Peterson, Ph.D.

(October 15, 2019) — We recently spoke with Laurie Ruderfer, Executive Director of Haddam-Killingworth Youth & Family Services (HKYFS) about youth and underage drinking in our communities. With school back in session and the busy, festive autumn season well underway, we wanted to provide information on the topic of underage drinking, how to prevent it, and how to build up the youth in our communities.

MP: Do you see there being an issue of under-age drinking here in Haddam and Killingworth?

LR: Yes. There is an issue here just as there are issues elsewhere in the State and in the country. For the past 15 years, HK has received grant funding to address the issue of underage drinking-Federal grants in the past and we are now in the 5th year of a 5-year grant from the State to address this issue.

The truth is that alcohol as a substance of choice has been on the decline in HK among youth over the past 10-15 years and the number of youths who report drinking significantly decreasing over the past 10-14 years. Reported alcohol use rates among HK 7-12th graders has decreased 13% since 2006 and we have seen a 54% decline in reported binge drinking rates over that time. We have been collecting data (self-report by youth) every other year since 2006 and in that time, we have seen positive trends: youth report increases in awareness that their parents and their peers would not approve of their drinking.

At the same time, youth in HK continue to report drinking alcohol at rates higher than regional and national averages with the percentages of youth reporting drinking increasing by grade and with age. A comparison of HK high school age youth with HS youth nationally (our Search Institute Attitudes and Behavior Survey in 2018 compared with a 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey-questions worded somewhat differently but closely enough that our evaluator cited these differences) highlights some of the differences.

  National Youth Risk Survey Local Search Institute Survey HK Youth
Drank alcohol one or more times in past 30 days 30% 32%
Binge Drinking 14% 17%
Rode in a car with someone who had been drinking 17% 28%
Drove after drinking 6% 9%

MP: What are some of the programs, ways, and strategies HKYFS engages the community to address youth drinking?

LR: Grant funding over the past decade has enabled Youth and Family Services of Haddam Killingworth to bring programming into the community to raise awareness of the issue of youth drinking and to address the public impacted by youth drinking. The issue is bigger than people may think it is and it involves more than just “those kids”, the youth that so many parents assume isn’t their child. Our grant funding has enabled us to enlist several strategies/programs:

  • As stated earlier, every other year we work with RSD17 to administer the Search Institute Survey on Attitudes and Behaviors. Questions asked on that survey each year pertain to youth reports of substance use, including alcohol.
  • From September – June we host monthly coalition meetings, a gathering of community people all interested in helping HK youth thrive. According to CADCA (a membership organization of hundreds of organizations like ours-the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America), community coalitions are a proven public health approach to reducing substance use and “ an effective strategy for addressing alcohol, tobacco and other drug use and abuse and related problems. Coalitions connect multiple sectors of the community – including businesses, parents, media, law enforcement, schools, faith organizations, health providers, social service agencies and government – to collaborate and develop plans, policies and strategies to achieve reductions in the rates of consumption at the community level.” 
  • Educational programming for the community, parent-specific or geared toward youth that brings speakers and workshops into the school and into the community in the evening to address issues concerning youth substance use. We have introduced Drunk Driving Goggles with both middle and high school grades. And though it is always be fun to see how much ones’ or ones’ friend’s judgement and ability to walk a straight line is impaired, the obviousness of the risk and concern are still hammered home. 
  • Speaking with Drivers Educational classes to address parents and youth about the risks and dangers of alcohol consumption and driving
  • We have trained staff as a Tips trainer, a person who can work with all local businesses and retail establishments serving alcohol to train them for the responsible service, sale, and consumption of alcohol. 
  • Working with the Resident State Troopers to implement compliance checks for all local businesses and retail establishments that serve alcohol to ensure that alcohol is not being provided to minors. A recent compliance check suggests that not all establishments in the two towns are consistently enforcing the law so we will be offering training in the hopes of increasing compliance to 100%.

And though this is not directly related, the reason we offer programming aimed at creating opportunities for youth and families is so that families come to know us, will see the value we bring to the community and know and trust the work that we do and our reach. When youth are   engaged in programs and clubs they not only benefit themselves but the larger community, too.

To connect youth with adults, and teachers, and businesses and the civic community we are making important connections. Social science research tells us that when youth are connected to family, friends, school and community they will be far less likely to engage in behaviors that can harm themselves or others. And we believe that once youth know us, once their families know and trust us, folks will be less likely to shy away from our doors when we offer educational programs, or they need to speak to someone about their teen who is experiencing a problem, or will reach out, sooner rather than later when they are confronted (as many of us are or have been), with an issue such as youth alcohol consumption.

MP: What are some key partners with which HKYFS collaborates to address this issue?

LR: Several examples of specific partnerships we do throughout the year:

Partnering with the Lions Club to introduce new after-school programming into the Middle School to engage youth with community service opportunities

Supporting a high school age coalition of youth called Ignite who work toward substance free experiences for other HS youth, advocate for community/school connections and provide community service opportunities for youth 9-12 grade

After-school clubs and outings for middle and high school age

Kids Night Out programming for families with young children to drop off their younger children (K-5) who get to know HK teenagers while their parents have a few hours to themselves

We also work with the State Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services who provides us our funding as well as the United Way of Middlesex County that also provides funding. We work with RSD 17, the Chamber of Commerce, the Resident State Troopers, members of the faith community, the CT Youth Service Association, PTO groups, local health and social service providers and community members without affiliations. I know it is cliché, but it truly does take a community.

MP: What are the laws on underage drinking (and parental involvement/culpability in CT)? Based on information provided by Haddam Resident Trooper Enrico Milardo (who retired Oct. 1), minors ticketed for possession of alcohol who also have a driver’s license face mandatory suspension of their license, for example.

LR: Information is drawn from the Connecticut General Statutes:

Sec. 30-89(a) of the Connecticut General Statutes effectively prohibits any purchase of alcohol by a person under the age of 21, even instances in which the underage person is not carded by the seller.

Purchase of Alcohol by a Minor: The fine for the underage purchase of alcohol is $200 to $500. Sec. 30-88a prohibits the misrepresentation of age to purchase alcohol, which includes using a fake I.D., altered license or I.D. belonging to another person. This statute also imposes a $200 to $500 fine and authorizes up to 30 days in jail. This offense is a misdemeanor.

Possession of Alcohol by a Minor: This is classified as a violation in Connecticut. It is not a misdemeanor or felony and is therefore not a crime. Still, it carries serious consequences: fines and suspensions of driver’s licenses and/or driving privileges. In addition to not being allowed to purchase alcoholic beverages, individuals under the age of 21 are not allowed to possess them either. Sec. 30-89(b) forbids minors from possessing “any alcoholic liquor (1) on any public street or highway, or (2) in any other public or private location.” That means that a minor cannot possess alcoholic beverages anywhere. The fine for initial and subsequent violations is in the same $200 to $500 range.

Exceptions to the rules, as there always are: Sec. 30-89(c) allows minors to possess alcohol for the following reasons:

  • If they are 18 and work for a liquor permit holder (e.g. restaurant, bar, store that has a permit) and must possess alcohol in the course of their employment
  • If they are accompanied by a parent, guardian or spouse of the minor, who is 21
  • If they are ordered by a physician
  • For religious practices (e.g. communion wine)

“Social Hosting” Law: 30(89a-89b) a) No person having possession of, or exercising dominion and control over, any dwelling unit or private property shall (1) knowingly, recklessly or with criminal negligence permit any minor to possess alcoholic liquor in violation of subsection (b) of section 30-89 in such dwelling unit or on such private property, or (2) knowing that any minor possesses alcoholic liquor in violation of subsection (b) of section 30-89 in such dwelling unit or on such private property, fail to make reasonable efforts to halt such possession. For the purposes of this subsection, “minor” means a person under twenty-one years of age. This is a Class A Misdemeanor.

MP: What key guidance and tips does HKYFS recommend that families use to address underage drinking?

LR: Underage drinking has been an issue affecting HK, and many other small towns, and cities, for many, many years. Though the drinking age was 18 once, it has always been illegal to serve minors and illegal to allow anyone who is not your child or under your care and who is underage to drink in your home. Sometimes, as we all know, it happens. Sometimes it feels easiest to let it be or look away. Many of us may even have partaken when we were teens and our memories are that nothing bad ever happened so maybe it isn’t such a big deal. And most often that is true. Most often tragedy is avoided. But sometimes it is not. And if you are an adult, a parent, a friend, a guardian, a store owner, an aunt or an uncle, and you are responsible for providing the alcohol or allowing the alcohol and something tragic happens, it becomes your responsibility.

We all know that kids will be kids and that young adults, sometimes even very young adults, will work hard to find ways to do the things that we tell them not to do. But as parents or adult friends or family members, we do not have to make it easy for them to do so when it comes to alcohol.

We can stand up for what we know will keep them safe. We can push them to think about the future and to take better care of themselves. When a young adult turns 21 they are legally able to make and stand by their own decisions. But until then, it is our responsibility as parents, as adults, and as a community to talk about what we wish for our youth and explain the reasoning behind our sometimes ‘uncool’ demands. And we need to do that again, and again. Then we can only do what all parents learn they must so: hope that their young person will remember our words and take a moment to think before having that drink or allowing their friends to do the same or allowing themselves or others to get into a car with someone who has been drinking.

Sometimes people reach out to our office asking us what they can or should do when they know that their teens are drinking or heading to a party where they know they will be drinking. Our best advice? Talk to your kids. Talk to their friends. Talk to the parents of their friends. Talk to your neighbors, members of your faith community, the businesses that you frequent. Talk to your town leaders, the Resident Troopers. Don’t be afraid to ‘be that person.’ You would be surprised to learn how many others are thinking the same things you are.

A young person in our community recently created a poster that now hangs in our office that reads “Alcohol. Temporary fun with permanent consequences.” Our greatest wish is that no other young person ever has to understand the meaning behind those words.

MP: Other thoughts you would like to share with readers and communities of Haddam and Killingworth on this important topic?

LR: Our kids, yours, mine, ours, look to us. They hear us. They want to hear from us. They want us to be proud of them, to share their ideas, thoughts, dreams and fears with us. They watch us, they mirror us, they learn from our actions and from our words even when we don’t realize we are teaching them anything. The Search Institute of Minneapolis sums it up this way:

“After decades of forming hypotheses, conducting surveys, crafting and rewriting definitions, analyzing data, and writing journal articles, Search Institute researchers and practitioners have arrived at a surprisingly simple conclusion: nothing—nothing—has more impact in the life of a child than a positive relationship.”

And it can all begin with a conversation and reminder that we want them to make decisions that keep them safe, and healthy day after day after day. That as adults we not only want that for them but for their friends, their classmates, their teammates, even their rivals. They are our collective future. And they are all our kids.

Editor’s Note: Links to additional information on the subject can be found below:


Sign pictured was created by an HKHS student.


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