“Affluenza:” Are the Rich Beyond Accountable?

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Will being “spoiled rotten” become the new defense for delinquent juveniles of well-heeled families hoping to evade accountability for their actions?

In 2013 a teen by the name of Ethan Couch, who had a lengthy history of behavioral misconduct, apparently washed some unprescribed Valium tablets down with some beer he had just stolen from a Wal-Mart store and took a car he wasn’t allowed to drive on a reckless escapade that eventually left four people dead and two others paralyzed. The event was tragic enough and sparked a public outcry. But additional outcry ensued when a judge agreed with attorneys and a mental health expert who claimed the young man was not really a hooligan but rather suffered from a unique kind of psychological disorder some have given the name “affluenza.” This “disease” of the modern era purportedly afflicts the children of the rich and powerful who have been so often spared the consequences of their actions that they simply haven’t developed the conscience necessary to discern right from wrong. Ethan, it was argued, was therefore actually a victim, prevented by his well-meaning but misguided parents from developing any moral character because of how often they allowed him to skirt the rules and bailed him out of trouble. So, he should not be punished for his actions but rather afforded the opportunity to be rehabilitated. Hopefully, after two years of court-mandated treatment (in a very posh mountainside residential “rehab” center that had more of the look and feel of a country club than a treatment facility) and 10 years of supervision, he would acquire a suitable moral compass. But the judge’s decision left many wondering whether being “spoiled rotten” would become the new defense for delinquent juveniles of well-heeled families hoping to evade accountability for their actions.

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The court vigorously defended its course of action, making the often heard argument that younger persons who have not yet matured in their moral development warrant very different treatment under the law. Just recently, however, and in violation of the terms of his probation, both Ethan and his mother — who had primary custodial charge over him and has long been one of his principal “enablers” — disappeared without checking in with probational supervisors (the pair may even have left the country to take a vacation of sorts), calling into question not only how well the court’s efforts to “rehabilitate” young Ethan have actually been working but also whether this affluent family will ever be truly held accountable for the innocent lives taken nearly three years ago.

As I assert in Character Disturbance, character-related problems are the defining issue of our times. And such problems always begin early in a person’s personality and moral development. Juvenile delinquency is nothing new, of course. But the Couch case and the way the issue of personal accountability was handled reflects the kind of societal “enabling” that has allowed character dysfunction to become the problem it is today. It also provides evidence of a serious double standard within the justice system when it comes to wealthy vs. poor individuals. Every day in the U.S. troubled teens from underprivileged backgrounds get tried as adults and slapped with lengthy prison terms for conduct of a similar or even lesser nature than that of Ethan Couch. And even when these youngsters are given probation and mandated into treatment as opposed to serving hard time, they rarely are subjected to the kind of intervention likely to make the necessary impact. Rehabilitation programs specifically designed to confront and correct distorted thinking patterns at the root of character dysfunction are quite rare. So, for a variety of reasons, and despite the best of intentions, there are many characteristics of the juvenile justice system that only perpetuate — and even sometimes inadvertently reinforce — character-related problems.

I wish I could say that it’s only the spoiled children of affluent, indulging parents who develop the attitudes of indifference and entitlement that lead to significant character dysfunction. But my years of experience have taught me otherwise. Ours is a fairly dysfunctional world in which character disturbance is a more dominant phenomenon than the “neurosis” with which most mental health professionals used to have to concern themselves. I’m old enough to remember when parents were not only held fully accountable for the actions of minors under their care but also took that responsibility so seriously that they not only did their best to ensure their children clearly knew right from wrong but also held their children firmly to account for serious missteps, lest the entire family pay a steep price both financially and with respect to public standing and personal honor. But today it seems that everyone is a “victim” of sorts, including Ethan Couch, a youngster who repeatedly stole, illegally drank, and committed many other reckless and illegal acts with full knowledge of the risks but also learned that it’s possible to buy your way out of trouble. I’m also old enough to remember when justice was meted out with a certain degree of “blindness” and dispassion. You broke the law, and you paid the price. It was that simple. No exceptions. No excuses. Nothing is that simple anymore. And while in some ways that might be for the better, in other ways, we appear to be paying a dear price for our new perspectives on accountability.

It’s never been good public policy to adjudicate by sentiment as opposed to reason. But that’s what appears to have happened originally in the case of Oscar Pistorius when a judge decided that there was no way a person showing as much after-the-fact distress as Mr. Pistorious displayed at his trial could possibly be guilty of the more serious crimes for which he was charged. (See “A Sportsman’s Instinct: The Final Verdict” and my earlier articles on the case.) And it appears also to have been one of the factors in the Couch verdict. But something else even more sinister has damaged public policy, and that is how egregiously some have expanded the degree to which a psychological condition is conjectured to mitigate personal culpability. (See “Mental Disorders and Accountability: Is Everyone a Victim?”.) There are actually only a handful of serious brain diseases that truly render a person incapable of judging right from wrong and therefore not responsible for their actions. The so-called condition of “affluenza” is certainly not one of them. Ethan Couch knew or should have known what he was doing and how wrong it was, and there should have been appropriate consequences for his willful transgressions. Reason and accountability should have trumped sentiment and social influence, but they apparently did not, and because they didn’t, justice was denied both Ethan and the real victims of his criminal acts. Hopefully, he and his principal enabler — who were just recently detained by police in a resort in Mexico — will be dealt with in a more fair, appropriate, and just manner than they have been so far.

If there were ever a prime example of how the prevalence and degree of character disturbance in our young people is fostered by sociocultural factors — including “enabling” parents, the power of wealth and privilege, and a confused, misguided, and truly dysfunctional justice system — the case of Ethan Couch is it! About the only good news I can think of to come out of this case so far is the fact that during the hearings a few psychologists and other mental health professionals stepped up and spoke out about character issues and the absurdity and harmfulness of casting character problems as “illnesses,” including completely made-up illnesses like “affluenza.” Unfortunately, some of these folks seemed more than a bit wishy-washy when challenged on their stance and generally under-informed about character pathology. But now that the Couch family has seen fit to show such disregard for the justice system and their obligations under the terms of their probation, perhaps there will be some renewed questioning of the court’s wisdom. Hopefully, a reexamination of how this case was handled will also help promote a small change not only in the way juvenile justice is meted out to the privileged but also in the “zeitgeist” — the attitudinal “atmosphere” or milieu — of both our culture and the professional community. To some degree, we’ve all been complicit in “enabling” an erosion of personal accountability, and for far too long. Perhaps in the end, the Couch case will provide us some lessons to help reverse that trend.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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