A recent decision in a Texas court has justice circles, including social, economic and criminal, ablaze with discussion. Last week, Juvenile Judge Jean Boyd ruled on the case of 16-year-old Ethan Couch. His charges stemmed from a June 2013 drunk driving crash in which nine people were injured and four were killed. Couch took his father’s Ford F350, stole beer from Wal-mart and then smashed into the four victims as they stood by the side of the road due to a broken down vehicle. Couch was doing around 70mph in a 40mph zone and had a blood alcohol level of 0.24 which is three times the legal limit for an adult. The reason everyone is up in arms over this case is the defense’s argument and the judge’s sentence based on the argument. The judge sentenced Couch to 10 years of probation and a one year stay at a private, one-on-one rehabilitation facility in California. The rehab stint had to be fully funded by Couch’s family. This sentence was in direct opposition to the prosecution’s request he spend the next 20 years in prison. The defense that granted him such leniency? Couch suffered from affluenza.
The term affluenza was first made popular in a 1997 PBS documentary of the same name. Affluenza was defined as a “painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” According to John de Graff, a documentary co-producer the term was meant as social criticism not psychiatry. He reports being “appalled” by the judge’s decision. De Graff tells PBS’s Here and Now that he believes Couch did have affluenza in the social criticism sense but that it should not have been a defense for his behavior. The defense attorney and his star expert didn’t agree.
Defense-called psychologist Dr. G. Dick Miller took the stand during the case to explain how affluenza played a role in the Couch case and specifically how it made Couch not responsible for his behavior. He explained that Couch was a product of a very wealthy family where there was little boundary setting and he never learned that there were consequences for his behavior. He stated Couch learned from a very young age that wealth bought privilege. He gave examples of how Couch had been allowed to drive since he was 13 and at age 15 he received no punishment from his parents when he was ticketed by law enforcement after being found in a parked vehicle with a passed out, nude 14-year-old girl.
Even before the verdict, many experts weighed in on the coined affliction since the PBS documentary and several books on the topic have been written, including The Affluenza Antidote: How Wealthy Families Can Raise Grounded Children in an Age of Apathy and Entitlement by James V. D’Amico. He stated that affluenza essentially is the lack of setting boundaries, giving children anything they want and children raising themselves as their career-obsessed parents pursue more and more wealth. “They behaved like spoiled brats-materialistic, apathetic, lazy and entitled,” he said of the children affected by affluenza. “Entire generations are now growing up fully absorbed with their own wants and oblivious to the greater needs around them. This self-centeredness masks a profound unhappiness and emptiness that money cannot ease or fill.” The parents had little time or tough love and end up uncertain of what to do when their children begin to misbehave, including participating in alcohol and substance use and criminal behavior. Often the parents choose to ignore the problems. Due to being bailed out, the kids learn they can buy their way out of punishment. He states these children are unable to work hard, associate with people of high character or contribute to society. The competitiveness that comes from their culture of always getting ahead prevents them from feeling the connectiveness of friendship.