February 8, 2013

Court of public opinion split on Falmouth party case

But it's more important for parents to prevent tragedy than to uphold their sense of acceptance by teen children, Mainers say.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

and Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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On Thursday, Feb. 07, 2013, Barry and Paula Spencer hug with joy after hearing the jury was deadlocked with the verdict resulting in a mistrial. Like the jury, public opinion on the case is split.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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On Friday, Feb. 08, 2013, Ned Chester talks about teen drinking and the parent's responsibility to stop it.

Gordon Chibroski

Additional Photos Below

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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On Friday, Feb. 08, 2013, Rick Biskup from Freeport talks about his daughters time in high school and what he did to keep her safe from drinking parties.

Gordon Chibroski

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On Friday, February 08, 2013, Alexis Dawkins, 25, Portland, and Andrei Atanasiu, 28, of South Portland, talk about the Falmouth party case. "At least parents were there," Atanasiu said. "I don't feel the parents should be held responsible at all."

Gordon Chibroski


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