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After Oswego: A guide to keeping teenagers alive
By Chuck Goudie | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 8/30/2010 12:03 AM

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Note: After the February 2007 car crash in Oswego that killed five teenagers, I wrote about how unnecessary the tragedy was. The column was posted around the Internet and e-mailed across the country. Since the intoxicated adult driver was sentenced on Friday to 15 years in prison, I am updating the column.

There is a word I have used more than any other in my 25 years as a father.

It's not a four-letter word that my children have heard. The word actually has 11 letters.

"Unnecessary."

I have used that word to deny a variety of purchases and activities over the years for all five of my beloved children. From unnecessary toys, to taking out the car in bad weather, to buying concert tickets; from unnecessary adolescent sleepovers to suspicious lake-house weekends.

As school starts again, the word "unnecessary" could end up saving your child's life.

Don't get me wrong. I haven't been a family room tyrant and my children weren't deprived of anything reasonable. Let's just say they have been wisely protected by an adult who has been there before and knows more than they do.

The word "unnecessary" was all I could think of once again as the deadly Oswego car crash was recounted last week during Sandra Vasquez's sentencing.

The loss of young lives, the way it happened, the time of night it happened and the events that led up to it were all just so unnecessary.

What were teenagers, some as young as 14, doing out at 2 in the morning partying with people in their 20s?

The teenagers had been riding around in several cars that night, most without wearing seat belts. A couple of them had been sitting in an open car trunk as they drove aimlessly.

They ended up attending a party at the home of Ms. Vasquez's aunt in nearby Montgomery. Witnesses told investigators that beer, hard liquor and marijuana were available at the party, said Oswego Police Chief Dwight Baird at the time.

One thing obviously not at the party: a responsible adult in charge. Sandra Vasquez was 23 years old at the time, and, although a mother herself, she had been drinking and was obviously irresponsible that night.

Vasquez's lengthy imprisonment won't bring back any of the teenagers she drove to their deaths: Katie Merkel, 14; James McGee, 14; Jessica Nutoni, 15; Tiffany Urso, 16, and Matthew Frank, 17. During Vasquez's jail stay her own two young sons will suffer immeasurably.

Public attention won't turn back the clock to the time when such unnecessary behavior could have been prevented.

As a parent ­- and especially a property owner - you don't want the police at your house. You don't want your child being patted down or made to perform a sobriety test. You want to keep your children away from those situations where they might be led into teenage temptation.

While I'm no child-rearing expert, here is a parental platform that might help:

• Sleepovers: Unnecessary. Nothing good comes from them. Young children end up cranky for days. Older kids use them as cover to stay with boy/girlfriends or drink without worry. As apparently was the case with one of the Oswego victims, a sleepover was the perfect party cover.

• Wandering around: Unnecessary. If you have plans, fine. What are they? No plans, no going out. Nothing good can come from riding around in a car looking for something to do. And isn't it your car?

• Don't know your teen's whereabouts? Unnecessary. When they say they are at someone's house, tell them to call you from the home phone, the one plugged into the wall. On a cell phone, they could be anywhere. On a land-line, your caller ID will tell you where they are.

• Don't know if parents will be home? Unnecessary. When your teen is going to party, don't just ask them whether the friends' parents will be home. Call the parents and ask. No parents, no go.

• Unreliable parent? Unnecessary. Just because your child is invited somewhere doesn't mean you have to let them go. If you know that the parents are drunks, abusive to small animals or keep loaded guns in the living room, keep your kids away.

• No ride home? Unnecessary trip. Find out before they leave home how they are getting back. If they don't have a confirmed ride with someone you know, don't let them go.

• Finally, trust. Unnecessary. Your trust is not their birthright. Trust isn't genetic, and it's not germane to the debate about your child's survival. Trust only has to be violated once for your kid to land in the lockup or on the medical examiner's slab. Is it worth it?

Our job as parents isn't to trust that our kids will get home alive. Our job is to fulfill the trust that God has placed in us by loaning us some children for a while ... and actually get them to adulthood.

Anything less is just unnecessary.

• Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC 7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by e-mail at chuckgoudie@gmail.com and followed at twitter.com/ChuckGoudie.