Poor Little Rich Boy?

December 20th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

If “affluenza” is a real illness, what’s the treatment?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

It’s difficult to drum up much empathy for an entitled 16-year-old who gets intoxicated on booze and Valium, hops in his Ford F-350, and barrels 70 mph down a rural stretch of Texas road, plowing into a disabled car on the side and instantly killing four people – and critically injuring two others.

In fact, said the boy’s defense team, that’s precisely what we should be feeling – because he has “affluenza.” That’s right, because his wealth made him disassociate actions from consequences, a psychologist claimed, Ethan Couch shouldn’t be held responsible for stealing two cases of beer from a store this summer and ending his night in a bloodbath.

As The New York Daily News noted, the concept of affluenza was made popular in the late 1990s by Jessie O’Neill, the granddaughter of a former president of General Motors, in her book “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.” The book describes a condition in which children from richer families develop a sense of entitlement, behave irresponsibly and make excuses for poor behavior.

Couch’s affluenza got him out of 20 years in prison and secured him 10 years on probation, as well as a recommendation from the judge that his parents send him to a tony Southern California rehab facility that would cost them $500,000 a year. He needed counseling, not hard time, the judge said. “This is obviously ridiculous,” the Daily News wrote, noting that people have served hard time for much less. “Whether a drunk driver grew up affluent or poor is totally irrelevant; he or she should still bear responsibility.” Pus, if affluenza is in fact an illness, the boy should be in treatment. “If someone with another condition – say, schizophrenia – had killed four people, they couldn’t be out on probation; they would be forcibly treated.”

The Fort Worth Star Telegram reported that the psychologist who evaluated the teen came forward to describe the family’s situation. Gary Miller, who began evaluating him on the day he was released from a hospital after the wreck, said to the paper that Couch’s intellectual age was 18, but his emotional age was 12. “The teen never learned to say that you’re sorry if you hurt someone. If you hurt someone, you sent him money.”

If this teen isn’t accountable, and is essentially the victim of his parents, should they be held responsible? Probation, as the Daily News notes, frees him up to do the same thing again. Did this judge simply reinforce for Couch the fact that there are no consequences? Weigh in.