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‘Affluenza’ defence sparks anger in US homicide trial

'Affluenza' is used to describe a condition in which children – generally from richer families – have a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible and make excuses for poor behaviour.

HOUSTON, UNITED STATES // “Affluenza”, the affliction cited by a psychologist to argue that a teenager from a wealthy family should not be sent to prison for killing four pedestrians while drink driving, is not a recognised diagnosis and should not be used to justify bad behaviour, experts say.

A Texas judge’s decision to give Ethan Couch, 16, 10 years of probation for the fatal accident sparked outrage from relatives of those killed and has led to questions about the defence strategy. A psychologist testified in juvenile court that as a result of “affluenza”, the Couch should not receive the maximum 20-year prison sentence prosecutors were seeking.

The term “affluenza” was popularised 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 behaviour, and sometimes dabble in drugs and alcohol, said Gary Buffone, a psychologist who does family wealth advising.

But Mr Buffone said that the term was not meant to be used as a defence in a trial or to justify such behaviour.

“The simple term would be spoiled brat,” he said.

“Essentially what [the judge] has done is slapped this child on the wrist for what is obviously a very serious offence which he would be responsible for in any other situation,” Mr Buffone said. “The defence 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.”

District Judge Jean Boyd issued his sentence on Tuesday after Couch “admitted his guilt” last week in four cases of intoxication manslaughter in the June incident.

The psychologist who testified as a defence witness said the boy grew up in a house where the parents were preoccupied with arguments that led to a divorce.

But prosecutor Richard Alpert argued in court that if the boy continues to be cushioned by his family’s wealth, another tragedy is inevitable.

The judge said the programmes available in the Texas juvenile justice system may not provide the intensive therapy Couch needs. His parents had said they would pay for him to go to a $450,000-a-year rehabilitation centre in California.

Suniya Luthar, a psychologist who specialises in the costs of affluence in suburban communities, said her research at Columbia University in New York has shown that 20 per cent 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 sentence reinforces that belief.

“What is the likelihood if this was an African-American, inner-city kid that grew up in a violent neighbourhood 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 behaviour and let him off because of how he was raised?” Ms Luthar said.

“We are setting a double standard for the rich and poor,” she said, 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.”

* Associated Press