Brian and Cindy Hoeflinger speak to Ottawa Hills High School students and parents about their son senior Brian Hoeflinger, who died in a drunk-driving accident in February. The couple asked teens to sign a pledge to not drink alcohol.
The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
There’s a new set of rules in place at Dr. Brian and Cindy Hoeflinger’s home.
Anyone coming to visit their children must leave their bags at the door. Even soft drinks from a fast food restaurant aren’t allowed in and the parents are constantly checking in on their children.
It may sound a bit extreme and to kids even embarrassing but to the parents it’s necessary.
The Ottawa Hills couple knows they’re walking a fine line between protecting and isolating their children, but after losing their 18-year-old son Brian in a drunk driving accident after leaving an unsupervised party this year, the couple says it’s more than worth it.
“Our eyes have been opened to what kids are doing,” Mrs. Hoeflinger said. “We need to be involved in their lives, whether they want us there or not. It’s worth embarrassing your kid to protect them, and one day they’ll understand.”
At a time when the National Institutes of Health reports that underage drinking is widespread, with more than 50 percent of teens having at least one alcoholic beverage by age 15, the Hoeflingers aren’t taking any chances. Since their son’s death, the couple has not only taken additional precautionary measures with their children — ages 15, 14, and 12 — they are speaking out to anyone who will listen and encouraging others to get involved.
“It’s not looked at seriously enough by parents,” said Dr. Hoeflinger, a neurosurgeon. “It’s something we don’t want to talk about. If your kids get caught, you don’t want anyone to know. Instead of correcting the problem, we’re ignoring it.”
‘A good kid’
Underage drinking is almost considered an acceptable rite of passage into adulthood, Dr. Hoeflinger said, admitting that at age 18, he’d “expected that [his son] would have tried beer, but not hard liquor to get drunk.” The family had heard about other teens drinking hard liquor, but didn’t have any first-hand knowledge or suspicion that their son was consuming it.
“I trusted my son implicitly,” said Mrs. Hoeflinger, a trained forensic pathologist. “He was a really good kid. A smart kid. A positive kid, and I’m not the only one that thinks so. Ask anyone that knew him.”
Brian was a senior at Ottawa Hills High School at the time of the one-car accident. An avid golfer, he’d hoped to go to the University of North Carolina. On Feb. 2, he was at an unsupervised party for one of his classmates and had been drinking vodka. While driving home, he crashed his car into a tree in Ottawa Hills and was killed instantly. The clerk at the liquor store where Brian’s friend allegedly bought the vodka has been charged with selling alcohol to a minor.
By the numbers
Alcohol is the No. 1 drug of choice among America’s adolescents, used by more young people than tobacco or illicit drugs. Underage drinking has become so widespread that changing the legal drinking age has come into question, with supporters arguing that lowering the age requirement from 21 to 18 would help demystify alcohol and curb the behavior.
The statistics from the National Institutes of Health are daunting: People ages 12 through 20 account for 11 percent of alcohol consumed in the country, although they drink less often than adults. Young people consume more than 90 percent of their alcohol by binge drinking, which is defined as the consumption of five or more drinks for males, and four or more drinks for females, per occasion.
“Since Brian’s death, we’ve learned that a lot more kids than we thought are binge drinking,” Mrs. Hoeflinger said. “When did vodka become acceptable, a social norm even, for 15-year-olds?”
To break things down even further, a 2008 study by the University of Michigan reports that 39 percent of eighth graders, 58 percent of tenth graders, and 72 percent of 12th graders have tried alcohol.
Behavorial experts say for many teens, the idea is to get as drunk as possible as quickly as possible, in part to reduce social anxieties.
“When kids get together in groups, the peer influence becomes great,” said Larry E. Hamme, chief clinical officer at Unison Behavioral Health Group, a mental health and substance abuse treatment facility in Toledo. “It’s hard for teens and children to resist peer influence, even though they’ve told their parents they wouldn’t drink.”
Ultimately, parents have the most influence over the children and set the tone for such behaviors, Mr. Hamme said.
“You have to look at the message you’re sending. Just because you allow them to drink in your living room, doesn’t mean they’re going to not drink when they leave your house or get in a car with a friend,” Mr. Hamme said. “I don’t care if it’s just one beer or two. It’s a problem. They’re underage.”
Consequences are key when addressing underage drinkers, Mr. Hamme said. Parents must take away privileges to send the message that it’s not tolerated.
Parents who supply minors with alcohol and minors caught in possession of alcohol could face criminal charges. Charges could range from misdemeanors to felonies, depending on the end result, said Sgt. Joe Heffernan of the Toledo Police Department.
“If you have teens at your house and you serve them and they get into a car accident and kill someone, you open yourself up to felony charges,” Sergeant Heffernan said.
The department has resource officers in city schools who speak with students about the dangers of underage drinking. At school events, the officers bring goggles that mimic a drunken experience and a golf cart to show students how difficult and unsafe impaired driving is.
“We can’t say it enough, just don’t do it,” Sergeant Heffernan said.
Contact RoNeisha Mullen at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6133.