PORTLAND – The closely watched trial of two parents from Falmouth who were charged with letting minors drink at their home left observers divided Friday, as the jury was a day earlier.
Meanwhile, experts on teenagers and teen drinking said the case offered parents some important lessons.
The trial of Barry and Paula Spencer ended Thursday in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court with the jury “hopelessly deadlocked” on the seven misdemeanor counts against each one.
The Spencers reached an agreement with the prosecution afterward to do community service and pay restitution, avoiding criminal convictions.
Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, who prosecuted the case, said after the jury deadlocked that the trial was a “snapshot of public opinion.”
She argued during the trial that the Spencers knew that minors were drinking in their back yard and basement during a party on June 16 and did nothing to stop it.
The Spencers’ attorneys argued that teenagers snuck alcohol into an alcohol-free party, which swelled out of control as the couple did the best they could to control it, seizing and dumping the beverages.
Ned Chester of Portland, whose children are now 32 and 28, said Friday that he followed the trial in the news and is sympathetic about the dilemmas facing parents of teenagers.
“I think some parents say, ‘I’d rather have them home (if they may drink); it’s safer,’” Chester said. “It’s a really difficult decision. I don’t think there’s a good answer to that. I think it’s dangerous to have 50 to 75 kids on your property.”
Chester, an attorney who often works in juvenile courts, said he has seen the dangers of teenagers using alcohol and drugs.
“Alcohol and kids is a much bigger issue than just these parties,” Chester said. “I think there’s some serious policy issues here.”
He said, “The real issue is, how do we get people to understand that alcohol and drugs in adolescents is not a benign phenomenon?”
Chester said young people’s brains continue to develop into their 20s, and alcohol and drugs can affect how they progress.
Andrei Atanasiu, 28, of South Portland, and Alexis Dawkins, 25, of Portland, said it’s hard to blame parents for teenagers’ drinking.
Dawkins said she threw parties when she was younger. “My parents would be away for the night, and as long as the house was OK,” there would be no trouble afterward, she said.
“At least parents were there,” at the party in Falmouth, Atanasiu said. “I don’t feel the parents should be held responsible at all, especially if they didn’t provide (alcohol).”
Experts said the circumstances provide lessons for parents.
Tom Fitzgerald, a family therapist who’s the director of the New England Family Institute in Portland, said decision-making by adolescents is the culmination of years of parenting that goes beyond lectures about right and wrong.
Parenting by example must begin early, he said, when it is easier for children to form positive communication habits with family members. Over time, regular dinner conversations can help gauge the stressors in children’s daily lives and reveal conflicts with their peers or pressure to conform.
“Parents have to sit down and say, ‘How do you see this? What do you learn from this?’” Fitzgerald said.
As a parent, “if you’ve done the work beforehand, all you can say is, ‘What did you learn from this family?’ and hope they make right decisions,” Fitzgerald said.
Jo Morrissey, project manager at 21 Reasons, a teen-drinking prevention group in Portland, said the area of the brain associated with decision-making isn’t fully formed until age 25, so teenagers are at greater risk for accidents or death while they’re under the influence.
Parents should notify police and neighbors before a party starts, recruit other adults to keep a close eye on party-goers, and patrol vigilantly for alcohol, she said.
“You don’t want to be the ‘Debbie Downer,’ who says ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that,’” she said.
But it’s far more important for parents to prevent the possible alternatives — arrests, injuries or even deaths — than preserve their sense of acceptance by their teenage children.
Considering the $17,000 the Spencers were ordered to pay because of what began as a party for the Falmouth High School baseball team, she said, “Wouldn’t it have been more productive to hire a comedian or a band?”
Rick Biskup of Freeport, who has a 27-year-old daughter, said he wouldn’t be in such a situation.
“I didn’t believe in opening up the premises to all manner of people … to come kind of uncontrolled,” he said.
Biskup said he also was careful when his daughter went out to parties as a teenager.
“The drill was then, ‘Honey, you’re going to a party. Great. Why don’t you give me the name and number of the parents,’” Biskup said. “It worked very well.”
Biskup said he knows only what he read in the news about the Spencers’ trial.
But, he said, “I’m sure they learned a major lesson, and that’s the best we can do. … I can’t imagine any parents would want to be under the public scrutiny like this couple was.”
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