In June, the time of year when many a graduation party is happening in homes all across America, here is a wake-up-call for all you parents of teenage kids ... if you serve them booze, be prepared to serve some time.
Today, Ryan Kenty, 20, and his brother Brandon, a sophomore in high school, are going to be driving their mother to jail. Then they'll head back to her rented apartment and move her belongings into storage. Why? Five years ago, Ryan asked his Mom to buy his friends some beer and wine so they could celebrate his 16th birthday.
Elisa Kelly, and her now ex-husband, George Robinson, lived on a remote property in Earlysville, Virginia. In August, 2002, they hosted a 16th birthday party for their son Ryan and about 30 kids were invited. Local police received a call about underage drinking and went out to the Robinson's around 11pm that night. Many of the kids scattered into the nearby woods after one of them yelled, "Cops!"
The couple were charged with 16 misdemeanor counts, however, it was later discovered that seven of the kids at the party had no alcohol in their system. Of the remaining nine who did have alcohol in their system, none were found to be over the legal limit for intoxication.
The couple pleaded guilty to nine counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, and the prosecutor had recommended they get a 90-day sentence. However, the judge was furious about the recent death of one of Ryan's classmates at the local high school from an alcohol-related crash. He decided to make an example of them and sentenced them both to eight years.
The couple appealed to Circuit Court, which reduced the sentence to 27 months. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld that decision in January, rejecting defense claims of an illegal search of the couple's property. The defense tried to have the case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court as a violation of the couple's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Ms. Kelly, 42, says that she had collected car keys that night to stop anyone from leaving."No one left the party. No one was hurt. No one drove anywhere. I really don't think I deserve to go to jail for this long."
Kelly, who is a stay-at-home mother also said: "I made a big mistake. I know that. I am so sorry."
Kelly said she believed the kids were going to drink regardless. She reasoned that supplying the alcohol and keeping them home would be safer than having them out drinking and driving. Court records show she spent $340 on beer and wine for the party that night. She said she made a deal with her son that no one could leave.
Kelly called the punishment harsh, excessive and politically motivated. "I'm not a hardened criminal," said the woman, who does not have a criminal record, not even a parking infraction. "I'm just a mom."
However, the prosecutor paints a somewhat different story. Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney James L. Camblos III says that this was the worst case of underage drinking that he's dealt with in 15 years of prosecuting: "Not only were they serving alcohol to 15- and 16-year-olds, they misled parents who called to ask about alcohol, and they tried to get the kids to cover it up after police got there."
Prosecutor Camblos who has made curbing underage drinking part of this year's reelection campaign, denied any political motivation. "Politics had nothing to do with it. I've seen too many photographs of teenagers being killed in car wrecks because of drinking and driving."
Kelly says that the five-year "nightmare mess" has had a devastating impact on her oldest, Ryan. She says that he is feeling very guilty about what has happened to his mother, so much so that he had dropped out of school. Ryan calls Kelly, the "best mom in the world," and he's horrified that she has to serve time for something he's convinced was his fault.
"He's bawled his eyes out over it. I keep telling him, 'I was the adult. I made the mistake, and it's not your fault.' "
"I wish I could go to jail for her," Ryan said as his eyes welled up with tears. He says that if it was possible, he'd swap places with his mom, who has a "heart of gold," in a minute. Ryan now works full-time for UPS.
"In a lot of cases, the parents are the problem," said Diane Eckert, a prevention specialist in the Safe and Drug-Free Youth section of Fairfax County schools. Eckert has just launched an awareness campaign entitled Parents Who Host Lose the Most. "The majority of our youth say they obtain their alcohol in their parents' homes."
Eckert says that parents have to wake up and realize that it is illegal for those under 21 to drink and, its also against the law for adults to provide them with alcohol. "A lot of our parents were able to drink when they were 18, and we're in a culture that endorses drinking as a rite of passage."