HOUSTON – “Affluenza,” the affliction cited by a psychologist to argue that a North Texas teenager from a wealthy family should not be sent to prison for killing four pedestrians while driving drunk, is not a recognized diagnosis and should not be used to justify bad behavior, experts said Thursday.
A judge’s decision to give 16-year-old Ethan Couch 10 years of probation for the fatal accident sparked outrage from relatives of those killed and has led to questions about the defense strategy. A psychologist testified in Couch’s trial in a Fort Worth juvenile court that as a result of “affluenza,” the boy should not receive the maximum 20-year prison sentence prosecutors were seeking.
The term “affluenza” was popularized in the late 1990s by Jessie O’Neill, the granddaughter of a past president of General Motors, when she wrote the book “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.” It has since been used to describe a condition in which children – generally from richer families – have a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible, make excuses for poor behavior and sometimes dabble in drugs and alcohol, explained Dr. Gary Buffone, a Jacksonville, Fla., psychologist who does family wealth advising.
But Buffone said in a telephone interview Thursday that the term wasn’t meant to be used as a defense in a criminal trial or to justify such behavior.
“Essentially what he [the judge] has done is slapped this child on the wrist for what is obviously a very serious offense which he would be responsible for in any other situation,” Buffone said. “The defense is laughable, the disposition is horrifying ... not only haven’t the parents set any consequences, but it’s being reinforced by the judge’s actions.”
The psychologist testifying as a defense witness at Couch’s trial testified that the boy grew up in a house where the parents were preoccupied with arguments that led to a divorce, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
Prosecutor Richard Alpert argued in court that if the boy continues to be cushioned by his family’s wealth, another tragedy is inevitable.
Although Couch’s case was handled in juvenile court, he has been identified publicly by the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office.
Dr. Suniya Luthar, a psychologist who specializes in the costs of affluence in suburban communities, told The Associated Press that her research at Columbia University in New York has shown that 20 percent of upper middle-class adolescents believe their parents would help them get out of a sticky situation. District Judge Jean Boyd’s sentence reinforces that belief.
“We are setting a double standard for the rich and poor,” she said, noting the message is “families that have money, you can drink and drive. This is a very, very dangerous thing we’re telling our children.”
Authorities said the teen and friends were seen on surveillance video stealing two cases of beer from a store. He had seven passengers in his Ford F-350, was speeding and had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit, according to trial testimony. His truck slammed into the four pedestrians, killing Brian Jennings, 43, Breanna Mitchell, 24, Shelby Boyles, 21, and her mother, Hollie Boyles, 52.
Judge Boyd decided the programs available in the Texas juvenile justice system may not provide the intensive therapy the teen could receive at a $450,000-a-year rehabilitation center near Newport Beach, Calif., that the parents would pay for.
Scott Brown, the boy’s lead defense attorney, said he could have been freed after two years if he had drawn the 20-year sentence. Instead, the judge “fashioned a sentence that could have him under the thumb of the justice system for the next 10 years,” he told the Star-Telegram.
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