A year ago this month the suburban village of Glen Ellyn, just west of Chicago, voted to make parents responsible for teen-age drinking that takes place on their property. The measure began as an amendment to a local alcohol ordinance, but since then the idea has gained statewide and nationwide momentum.
The issue in Glen Ellyn, according to Village President Michael Formento, was parents' difficulty in supervising the alcoholic intake of their children and their children's friends, especially during parties. Most parties started innocently, he says, but typically, word would get around, more young people would show up at the door with alcohol, and children would end up pleading with their parents not to throw their friends out.
''Parents were having a hard time saying 'No' to their kids,'' Mr. Formento says, ''because parties were the 'in' thing to do.''
After hearing of parents' discomfort in dealing with teens, police problems with big parties, and neighborhood complaints about the litter and noise, Mr. Formento drafted the ''parental responsibility'' section. The measure made it illegal for any property owner in Glen Ellyn knowingly to allow anyone under the age of 21 to remain on the premises while in the possession of alcohol. Under the section, parents can be fined from $25 to $500 in court if they're cited. If parents are away from home when the police arrive - and this is what often happens - they'll be notified as soon as possible and warned. Only one warning is issued.
Mr. Formento believes the new section has been a success in every way. Since last July, seven warnings have been issued, but so far, no parents have been arrested. The village president says Glen Ellyn parents have overwhelmingly backed the law, calling him to report on parties that have been canceled or reduced to a more manageable number. He says making parents directly responsible has given them moral support and their children something to think about.
''The young people now have to make a decision. They have to say to themselves, 'Am I going to allow my friends to come to my home, bring wine and beer, and take the chance that my parents are going to be penalized for my friends' actions? Or am I going to stand up to my friends and say, 'Hey, look, we're just not going to do that'?''
Many Glen Ellyn teen-agers are apparently keeping those questions in mind. According to Nancy Boras, student council president at Glenbard West High School , unsupervised parties are still taking place, but students are taking more precautions about who gets in. But, she adds, many high schoolers have also been taking their parties elsewhere. Glen Ellyn police chief Jim Mullany confirms that.
''Some parties that would have been held here have been forced out into county areas or other towns where there's not much enforcement,'' he says.
A solution to the enforcement problem could come in the form of state legislation. Illinois State Rep. Judy Baar Topinka has drafted a bill modeled after the Glen Ellyn ordinance and plans to introduce it within the next month. She says the legislation has widespread support among legislators and law enforcement officials in the state, and she predicts rapid passage.
According to an Illinois legislative survey, only one state - Colorado - currently makes parents responsible for teen-age drinking that takes place on their property.
Representative Topinka is sensitive to the question of privacy such a bill inevitably raises, and her proposal protects the rights of parents to approve of and supervise their children's drinking at home. Alcoholic consumption during religious observances is also protected. What shouldn't be protected, Representative Topinka says, are the excesses of teen-age drinking, which result in auto accidents, vandalism, and other petty crimes.
''It's gotten to a point - (especially) in the suburbs - where it's a persistent problem,'' she says. ''Parents seemingly don't care.''
Since Glen Ellyn's ordinance passed, Michael Formento has heard from a number of parents, police, and community leaders from around the country who do care and are interested in duplicating Glen Ellyn's vote for parental responsibility. Widespread publicity for the measure has led nearly 20 Illinois communities to enact similar bills; other towns have ordinances pending but are waiting to see what happens to the state legislation. Communities in four other states have enacted parental responsibility ordinances, Mr. Formento says, and he's also been contacted by 70 other towns across the country.
Parental responsibility for teen-age drinking is not a panacea for the problems of youth and alcohol, Mr. Formento believes, but he says the Glen Ellyn example has caught on because it's positive and based on common sense.
''The statistics show that in the United States today there are nearly 700, 000 teen-age alcoholics,'' he says. ''Some have said they'd rather have their kids drink alcohol than do drugs. I don't know how you can trade one evil for another. . . . We as parents have to realize that we do have that responsibility to help our children.''