A 2007 Deerfield tragedy has spurred health professionals, law enforcement agents and volunteers accross Lake County to work behind the scenes to target youths’ alcohol consumption and drug abuse.
The Lake County Underage Drinking Prevention Task Force was established in 2007, when the Lake County After School Coalition merged its efforts with the Lake County Chiefs of Police Association just months after an intoxicated 18-year-old died in a car accident after leaving a party in a Deerfield home.
The high-profile story led to an Illinois Supreme Court case and prompted many local villages to enforce social-host ordinances that hold adults responsible for preventing underage drinking parties in their homes.
Today, the task force includes about 15 active members, including representatives from Buffalo Grove, Deerfield, Lake Forest, Lake Bluff, Lake Zurich, Grayslake, Mundelein, Fox Lake and Zion. The Lake County Sheriff’s Department also participates. The group is led by the Lake County Health Department, Mundelein Police Chief Ray Rose and Bruce Johnson, chief executive officer of Nicasa.
Officials from those towns meet regularly to discuss and plan joint efforts, which include liquor store compliance checks. During the checks, typically conducted one to three times per year, police crack down on clerks who sell alcohol to undercover teens.
“Our main goal has been trying to reduce youth access to alcohol through social and retail access,” said Liz Nelson, a community health specialist at the Lake County Health Department.
“Some of the municipal boards don’t support the initiative because they feel it hinders businesses,” she said. “Some have said they’ve been discouraged from participating in compliance checks because they don’t want to be a heavy-handed enforcer.”
Some parents have voiced similar concerns, she said. “There are a lot of adults operating off of 20-year-old information … saying that ‘kids will be kids.’”
In surveys, youths say they most often access alcohol from friends or at parties. Officials believe those friends or hosts are less likely to obtain liquor from stores than they are their own homes.
“I think it’s more of a case where parents aren’t actively securing it or monitoring the alcohol in their home,” Nelson said.
Of Lake County’s 20,000 participants in the 2010 Illinois Youth Survey, 77 percent of high school seniors, 64 percent of sophomores and 40 percent of eighth-graders said it would be “very easy” or “sort of easy” for them to obtain alcohol.
Also alarming, Nelson said, was the high rate of binge drinking reported by teens. Twenty-nine percent of seniors reported they had consumed five or more drinks on a single occasion within two weeks of the survey.
Studies show that after alcohol, marijuana is the second most abused substance, Nelson said. However, the task force has not zeroed in on that due to minimal federal funding for prevention research and the need for more community leaders to take a stand against its use.
Instead, the Lake County Underage Drinking Prevention Task Force is targeting prescription drug abuse, based on police reports and youth survey results indicating increased availability.
“We know there’s a rise in prescription drug use,” Lake County community health specialist Kim Zambole said at a recent task force meeting.
Some communities have conducted their own prescription drug collection events. The task force is working now to collaborate on such efforts.
Zambole said the initiative is in response to officials’ efforts to learn “what does the environment look like for youths to make good decisions? A lot of what we do at the task force is work to make a larger, healthier environment.”
The task force recently formed a youth advisory board composed of students from Buffalo Grove, Lake Zurich, Wauconda, Mundelein and Fox Lake, Nelson said. The group will provide insights about what situations teens encounter and whether they think the task force’s plans will make a difference within their peer group.
The task force has used various vehicles to reach the community, including producing a local cable show a couple of years ago, delivering presentations to large suburban corporations and hosting town hall meetings. Nelson said the group is looking into holding a summit for faith-based organizations next.
Organizers also hope to secure grant funds that would cover the cost of a media campaign and allow the task force to hire a coordinator for its efforts. They have applied for a $125,000 Federal Drug Free Communities grant, which would be the group’s first countywide funding. Grant recipients will be named in the fall.
“It’s so challenging to do things on a countywide level because we’re such a diverse county,” Nelson said. “It would be nice to have more resources.”
Community members are invited to join the Lake County Underage Drinking Prevention Task force. The group meets at 8:30 a.m. on the third Thursday of most months at the Mundelein Police Department, 221 N. Lake St. The next meeting is scheduled May 17.