"That's odd," I thought as I got out of the car from our weekend away. "I mopped the porch just before we left. Now it's caked in mud."
Then I opened the front door and my jaw dropped and my eyes filled with tears. There had been a teenage party. What a fool I had been to leave a 17-year-old girl at home alone. I could hardly get over my naivety as I looked around at the destruction to our much loved home.
Lights and windows were broken, kitchen cabinets were split in two and our wooden floors – which we chose because of their warm golden colour - had been bleached by a sea of wine, beer and mud.
The carpets were covered in vomit, chewing gum and mud. The banister was hanging off and our beautiful limestone fireplace was ruined.
The painting that my husband and I had bought each other as a wedding present had been destroyed, and in its place was an adolescent drawing. Most strangely of all, toothpaste was smeared up all the walls.
And that was just downstairs. Condom wrappers were littered on the bedroom carpets, including in my six-year-old son's room, whose floors and walls were almost unrecognisable from the filth and mess.
"Mummy, what's happened to my room?" he cried and as he spoke, he accidentally knocked over the beaker by his bed. We kept it there so that he had water to drink in the night, but today, it was full of wine, poured from one of the 20 bottles that I was to later discover the teenagers had taken from our garage.
Other things, we would realise later on, had also been stolen including expensive speakers and a bike.
I don't think I've ever felt such a sense of sadness, betrayal and anger.
Three months later, we are still discovering further damage and the bill is fast approaching £5,000.
But it's not just the material destruction that has left us feeling so devastated. More than anything, it's the seeming lack of remorse from Chloe, our niece who had held the party.
Chloe had come to live with us last summer for two years when things didn't work out for her at home. We'd got her into a local college and I'd got her some local babysitting jobs. We thought things were going well and that's why we didn't think much of leaving her when we went away for a couple of nights. How silly we were.
When the police came round, the officer looked at me kindly and said, "You're remarkably calm. I'd be in floods of tears if my home looked like this." I simply explained that I was all cried out.
We haven't seen Chloe since. She failed to answer our calls and texts until, eventually, her mum called to say she'd gone back there.
We obviously hope things work out for her and, in the fullness of time, I'm sure we'll mend our relationship. But until she says sorry – which she hasn't really done yet – it's hard to forgive her and move on. That's very hurtful.
At least Chloe's mum has been able to fill us in on some of the details. We now know, for instance, that Chloe advertised the party on Facebook and that at least 60 people came, most of whom she didn't know.
Things could have been a lot worse. The month after Chloe's party, a 14-year-old girl in Essex held a party where 800 teenagers descended on a five-bedroom semi after it was advertised on Facebook. Rooms were ripped to pieces, a piano was smashed apart and there were graffiti on the walls and the damage is estimated to be around £30,000.
Around the same time, a 17-year-old from Llanelli held a party, also announced on Facebook, which ended in six young people facing charges of criminal damage, affray or possession of drugs. Witnesses said a TV was thrown out of the window during the party.
Another party, this one in Hertfordshire, ended up with a 21-year-old being convicted of causing a public nuisance after more than 1,000 attended the gathering he advertised on social media, forcing Hertfordshire Police to call in reinforcements to close a nearby main road and disperse the crowds.
And most tragically of all, 17-year-old A-grade student Jay Whiston was stabbed to death at an Essex house party that was gatecrashed by youths who had learned about it on Facebook.
Sometimes, barely a week seems to go by without news of such parties – something that doesn't surprise Wendy Evans, area manager of Family Lives. "Over the decades, children and young people have often had parties when parents are out or away and of course these too have been known to get out of hand. But now with the immediacy and reach of social media, the news travels quickly and far and therefore the consequences can be catastrophic," she explains.
Parents and carers need to learn about social media and try to keep themselves involved in the way their children use it, she advises.
"It's particularly important that they understand the sheer power that it has. One 16th birthday party made news even though it was very well organised, with grown-ups to act as bouncers, a proper guest list and a ban on alcohol. The mere fact that it was advertised on Facebook meant it attracted 400 revellers – more than enough to do serious damage."
If you are thinking of leaving teens or young adults at home alone, be very clear about your rules and expectations, she suggests. "Young people can feel invincible, not think through the consequences and get carried away with the moment."
Show them photos of the results of teenage parties that have gone wrong, advises Anne Denny, who teaches positive parenting courses. There are plenty on the internet. She adds that parents shouldn't just be working to prevent their kids having such parties, but also stopping them from attending them.
"Talk about privacy and that you understand they need it, but remind them that trust has to be earned," she says. "Negotiate with them ways they can earn your trust so that they can have more privacy and freedom."
Have rules about what to do if such an incident does occur, she adds. "Ideas could be having a couple of trusted friends on the door who will know if unknown people arrive, have a party by invitation only or in a local hall or pub room where there will be adults present. If you do have a party at home, at the first sign of one or two strangers at the door, be prepared to call the police - and if you're not around make sure they agree to do this and call you too."
Remember it is a teen's job to rebel, she says. "They are preparing to be independent and live life without you. It is an inherent reflex for them to pull away. But with respect and understanding you can have a healthy relationship with them. Children need to learn responsibility and respect. It's your job to teach them and it's never too late to show them how."
Clearly, we got it very wrong with Chloe. We wanted to show her we valued and trusted her, but as Denny says, we failed to build up to that first. And I suppose, in the end, that's why I want to shout from the rooftops about what happened to us, so that other families might think twice before taking any chances that could lead to a teenager in their home to do anything remotely similar.
By Sarah Edgson
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