Is bad parenting an excuse for murder?
That’s what Scott Brown, attorney for Ethan Couch and an expert witness psychologist, implied when he used the term “affluenza” to argue against intoxication manslaughter and assault charges for his client. Couch, 16, was on trial after he stole beer from a Walmart last summer, got drunk at a party, and gunned his car into four victims who had stopped on the side of a Burleson, Tex. road to help a stranded motorist. All four died, and both passengers in Couch’s pickup truck who were riding in the open bed were tossed from the vehicle; one is unable to move or talk due to brain injuries.
But even though Couch was behind the wheel, it wasn’t he, argued psychologist G. Dick Miller, who should bear the burden of punishment for the tragedy. Instead, it was his parents, who raised their boy with few limits and even less discipline, indulging him to the point where he was unable to appreciate the importance of rules and laws, not to mention the consequences of breaking them.
Brown and Miller may have twisted the term a bit – affluenza more often refers to overconsumption and materialism, or the general psychological malaise, lack of motivation and guilt that wealthy young people feel as a result of their extreme privilege. Brown and Miller took it further, to incorporate the lack of accountability and belief among entitled rich kids that money can solve all problems.
Their definition placed the blame at the feet of Couch’s parents, who, according to CNN, allowed their son to drink at age 13. “There are certain things that society expects from parents in terms of providing for their children,” says Dr. Cindy Christian, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on child abuse and neglect. “Children need physical things – food, clothing, shelter and education. And they need nurturing, love and discipline. Parents are responsible for teaching their children right from wrong.”
Couch’s defense argued that his parents did not fulfill this responsibility adequately; could that be considered neglect, or even abuse? “If you think of what children need, and what parents are supposed to be providing, then yes, theoretically you could make the argument that [such parenting] is neglectful,” says Christian, who chairs the child abuse and neglect prevention program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
But who should be held accountable for that deficit? Regardless of what may have contributed to the behavior, Couch broke laws, and Christian points out that even adolescents need to understand the consequences of that. Over-indulgent parents still don’t absolve their child of responsibility for his actions. Christian says at the other end of the spectrum, for example, children brought up in extreme poverty, who experience documented developmental deficits from the stress of not growing up in stable households and not receiving consistent, high quality nurturing, aren’t allowed to use their toxic childhood environments as a defense when they commit crimes. “It’s a false argument at any level,” says Dr. Benjamin Siegel, professor pediatrics and psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine of the idea that Couch should not be accountable for his actions. “All people, and even kids, have got to be responsible for their behavior. And it starts early, in first grade.”
Miller testified that Couch should not be jailed, but treated for the results of his parents’ poor judgment. He recommended keeping the teen away from his parents for one year, and the juvenile court judge presiding over the case agreed, sentencing him to a rehabilitation facility and 10 years of probation. But since the court system strives for justice, would jail have been a more just consequence for Couch’s affluenza? “[The judge] fashioned a sentence that is going to keep Ethan under the thumb of the justice system for the next 10 years,” Brown said to CNN affiliate KTVT. “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.”
Wealth and the sense of privilege that it brings, however, are a hard habit to break. Couch’s father has agreed to pay the $450,000 bill for his rehabilitation program.