"Affluenza" Doesn't Excuse Teen in Fatal Crash, Psychologists Say

The term "affluenza" 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

By Ramit Plushnick-Masti
|  Friday, Dec 13, 2013  |  Updated 7:50 AM EDT
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Speaking after the sentencing of 16-year-old Ethan Couch are, L-R, Eric Broyles, the father and husband of two of the victims, Scott Brown, defense attorney, and Richard Alpert, prosecuting attorney.

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Speaking after the sentencing of 16-year-old Ethan Couch are, L-R, Eric Broyles, the father and husband of two of the victims, Scott Brown, defense attorney, and Richard Alpert, prosecuting attorney.

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"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, psychologists said Thursday.

A judge's decision to sentence 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.

"The simple term would be spoiled brat," he said.

"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."

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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 at school, such as being caught for the third time on campus with a bottle of vodka. The judge's sentence reinforces that belief.

"What is the likelihood if this was an African-American, inner-city kid that grew up in a violent neighborhood to a single mother who is addicted to crack and he was caught two or three times ... what is the likelihood that the judge would excuse his behavior and let him off because of how he was raised?" Luthar asked.

"We are setting a double standard for the rich and poor," she added, 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.

Couch confessed to the intoxication manslaughter charges against him.

"If Ethan had been any other 16-year-old without parents of influence and money I believe the outcome and the circumstances would have been different," said Eric Boyles, whose wife and daughter were killed in the crash.

The judge 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.

"But you really have to understand that a 16-year-old doesn't see the world the way we see it. And so taking him away from his family and teaching him to be a responsible citizen that's a consequence," said Scott Brown, the boy's lead defense attorney.

Brown said Couch 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.

"And if Ethan doesn't do what he's supposed to do, if he has one misstep at all, then this judge or an adult judge when he's transferred can then incarcerate him in prison," Brown said. "He's taken away from his family, he's taken away from all the things that he's been given."

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