Should parents be held liable for rapes at teen parties?

April 16, 2013

Where were the parents?

This is the question that’s bothered me since hearing about Steubenville, Rehtaeh Parsons in Canada and now Audrie Pott.

Audrie Pott (Family photo provided by attorney Robert Allard/Associated Press)
Audrie Pott (Family photo provided by attorney Robert Allard via Associated Press)

Audrie is the 15-year-old girl in California who hanged herself in her mother’s bathroom eight days after she was allegedly sexually assaulted at a Labor Day weekend party. Pott woke up at a party Sept. 2 to discover messages written in marker on her body, including one that said “Blank was here,” according to family attorney Robert Allard. (The name is one of the boys who allegedly assaulted her,  and since he’s a minor, it hasn’t been released.) She believed that photos of her attack were shared with other students at Saratoga High School and on social media.

Her agony was detailed in posts on Facebook, where she wrote such entries as “My life is ruined and I don’t even remember how,” Lisa Pott, Audrie’s stepmother said.

Lawrence Pott and Sheila Pott, the divorced parents of Audrie, have filed a wrongful death suit in Santa Clara County. In it, they name the three boys believed to have sexually assaulted Audrie while she was passed out after drinking alcohol-laced Gatorade. They also name Sheila and Michael Penuen, owners of the house where the party occurred. The Pottses’ attorney said the party was not supervised and that the teenagers drank alcohol from the liquor cabinet at the home.

So where were the parents? And not just in California but in Halifax and in Steubenville. And in Overland Park, Kan., where my best friend’s daughter was raped at a teen party with alcohol at somebody’s house five years ago. Were the parents out of town and unaware of what was happening in their absence? Did they turn a blind eye to what was going on, figuring kids will be kids? Or did they condone and even help with the party, believing that if teens are going to drink, it would be better if it happened in the safety of someone’s home?

It seems like the parents who host these parties with alcohol in their homes ought to shoulder part of the blame — and in some states, the law agrees. In Virginia, a parent may be open to a civil lawsuit and possible criminal charges for contributing to the delinquency of a minor if someone is sexually assaulted at a party with alcohol for minors in the home.

The kicker: You can be held liable or found guilty even if you didn’t know that alcohol was being served or that the party was even going on.

That’s what happened to Bill Burnett, a Stanford University professor. Although he says he and his wife had told their 17-year-old son no alcohol, underage drinking occurred at a party in the basement while the parents were upstairs. Burnett was arrested on suspicion of  44 counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and spent a night in jail, but the charges were later dropped for lack of evidence.

The attorney general of Ohio has promised to look into the role of adults in the Steubenville rape case, while in Canada, the boys who raped Rehtaeh Parsons have not even been charged, let alone any parents.

It’s not a popular stance, believe me, to say parents should become more involved. If you ask too many questions or make too many rules, your kid won’t be one of the cool kids or a member of the popular crowd.

But maybe parents need to stop and consider their role as parents. They need to think about whether providing a comfortable, “safe” place for kids to drink isn’t also providing a place where young women end up defenseless and young men do things might not do sober.

Solving what appears to be “an epidemic of sexual assault, disseminating photographs and cyber bullying,” as Lawrence Pott described it in Monday’s news conference, will take more than curbing underage drinking and discouraging alcohol-fueled parties.

But it’s a first step.

Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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