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Underage drinking endangers youths, community

People are quick to throw out reasons for underage drinking — the legal drinking age needs to be lowered, parents are to blame, there’s not enough for kids to do.

Certified substance abuse counselor Angie Carter said alcohol can serve many purposes and fill important roles, but not in a healthy way. She thinks it’s important for people to understand the dynamics that occur when youths decide to drink.

“Why are our young people engaging in drinking alcohol and using drugs past the experimentation stage?” Carter asks. “Many of these young people will outgrow experimenting with alcohol and/or other substances, but far too many will go on to develop a significant and harmful relationship with that substance.”

The Jefferson City police were called last weekend to break up an underage drinking party where they identified 60 people between the ages of 14-20 and detained juveniles for various charges, mostly alcohol-related.

“Underage drinking is not a new problem, but it seems to be encompassing a larger number of kids per incident,” Carter said.

According to the CDC, a 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that during the past 30 days, 39 percent of high school students drank some amount of alcohol, 22 percent binge drank, 8 percent drove after drinking alcohol and 24 percent rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.

Michael Couty, juvenile court administrator at the Prenger Family Center, said the center has a process for dealing with youths who are charged with minor consumption. The center works closely with the Cole County Sheriff’s Office and the Jefferson City Police Department.

He said after the Jefferson City police detain a juvenile for underage drinking, the juvenile is given a breathalyzer test. If the individual blows more than .02, they are charged with minor consumption.

“We will look at their school issues, their school situation, their family situation and then develop a petition and go to court,” Couty said. “The individual will also go to a local provider for an assessment, and it is determined what type of treatment is needed.

“We make that treatment part of a court recommendation when we go to court.”

Couty said the juvenile court provides an intensive program for minor consumption.

“When you look at alcohol, especially in this area right now, it is probably the number one abused substance with our young folks,” Couty said. “They put themselves at harm and also folks out in the community.”

He said the Prenger Family Center wants them to get into treatment and get them to understand the issues and what substances will do to the development of the brain.

Family counseling is also part of treatment.

“It’s not just an individual issue, but a family issue at that point,” Couty said.

Carter said there are signs that should be red flags to parents that their children are participating in underage drinking or substance abuse. They include: a drop in grades; a personality change; isolation or alienation from the family; resentment when approached about their behavior or inquiring as to what they’ve been up to; hostility or aggression; pulling away from the family; signs of depression; losing interest in things like sports, hobbies and spiritual activities; a change in dress; and unexplained financial resources.

She said parents can begin by educating themselves about substance abuse and how denial works.

“It is hard to look at the situation realistically and honestly,” Carter said. “Many times, I have encouraged parents to interview their kids about their family life.”

Her suggested questions:

• Do you feel there is trust within the family?

• How do you feel about our drinking? (if the parents drink)

• Do you feel that you are getting enough time with us (the parents)?

• Do you think we are good role models?

• Do you feel heard and understood?

• What would you change about our family if you could?

Carter said these questions allow young people to share what they think or feel about their experience in a family unit and parents can get a lot of good feedback from it.

“I think people are fearful of having a really open and honest conversation because of offending some people, or maybe not being politically correct, and so it’s just easier to not have the conversation,” Carter said.

She said conversations about morals, values, free speech, freedom of expression, parental rights and responsibilities, spiritual values and secularism can be difficult to discuss because they can be controversial and passionate.

“But, I believe these topics all play a part in what is happening,” Carter said.

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