HOUSTON (AP) — "Affluenza," the term used 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.
The term 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.
It was also used by an expert defense witness in the trial of 16-year-old Ethan Couch, who after confessing to intoxication manslaughter in the fatal accident avoided what could have been a sentence of up to 20 years in prison when District Judge Jean Boyd gave him 10 years of probation.
"Essentially what he 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."
While prosecutors argued for the maximum prison sentence for the June 15 accident, his attorneys said the boy needs rehabilitation, not prison, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. Psychologist Gary Miller testified that Couch grew up in a house where the parents were preoccupied with arguments that led to a divorce and that he suffered from "affluenza."
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.
Miller told the judge that the boy's father "does not have relationships, he takes hostages." He said Couch's mother was indulgent: "Her mantra was that if it feels good, do it."
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.
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.
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.
Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.