Editorial: The fight to eradicate ‘affluenza’

Not influenza, “affluenza.”

The term — a play on the words “affluent” and the common flu — surfaced during the February 2014 sentencing of Texas teen Ethan Couch. He was the privileged 16-year-old charged with manslaughter and assault after he struck and killed four pedestrians in June 2013 while he driving under the influence of alcohol, marijuana and Valium.

A psychologist hired by his defense team testified that Couch could not understand the consequences of his actions, that he didn’t know right from wrong, because he was raised in a wealthy household and coddled by his parents. It was an odd defense strategy, but it worked. Couch pleaded guilty to all charges. Prosecutors sought a 20-year prison sentence, but Couch got just 10 years of probation and was ordered to go to rehab.

That sparked a national debate about whether wealthy kids catch breaks from the criminal justice system that poor kids would not get — and about how loony the idea of “affluenza” was.

More than two years after the accident, Couch, now 18, may finally face some real jail time. He and his mother were detained Monday evening in Mexico for allegedly violating his terms of probation. He’s suspected of trying to flee the U.S. after a short video was posted on social media that showed Couch at a party where others were playing beer pong, a drinking game. His probation forbids alcohol consumption.

What will his defense team say this time? An affluenza relapse?

You hear a lot of talk about whether parents these days hover too much over their kids, whether we’ve raised a generation of weak, dependent (and easily offended) children. Couch is a case study in astoundingly disastrous parenting.

In depositions provided in civil lawsuits filed after Couch’s fatal car accident, and in other court documents, Couch’s parents, Tonya and Fred Couch, admitted that their son had access to drugs and alcohol at an early age. He was allowed to drive to his private school when he was 13. He often stayed by himself or with friends, largely unsupervised, at his family’s second home.

D Magazine, a Dallas-based publication, wrote in a May 2015 story titled “The Worst Parents Ever” that months before the fatal accident, Couch got caught relieving himself in a store parking lot. He was with a nude 14-year-old girl and had a bottle of booze in his car. Police decided only to ticket him. His mother took care of the fines and ignored the classes and mandatory community service that were part of his punishment. She wasn’t sure what happened to the girl in the car, she testified during a deposition.

Couch was drinking with friends the night of the accident. Toxicology reports showed he had more than three times the adult legal limit of alcohol in his system — he was 16, couldn’t legally drink a drop. He was driving a large pickup truck, with friends in the bed of the truck, more than 70 mph down a rural road when he plowed into a car and four pedestrians who were along the side of the road.

Killed were Breanna Mitchell, a 24-year-old chef who had accidentally swerved off the road and was talking to her mother on her cellphone when Couch struck her; Hollie and Shelby Boyles, a mother and daughter who came out of their house that night to help Mitchell; and Brian Jennings, a youth minister who had stopped along the side of the road to help.

Several of Couch’s friends in the pickup truck suffered serious injuries. Couch did too but he survived. His parents hired a slick defense team and he had a psychologist who was willing to explain away bad behavior with a junk science term. A judge bought the whole charade.

Now Couch and his mother have been picked up in Mexico — the resort town of Puerto Vallarta, natch.

Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials say Couch will be brought back to Texas to face charges of violating probation. His mother could face charges.

This whole case is so outlandish that it’s risky to draw parallels to other parents. Let’s just say you don’t have to help your kid flee to Puerto Vallarta to be guilty of gross negligence through coddling your kids though.

Just a reminder that the best things parents can teach are discipline, boundaries, respect and right from wrong.


Chicago Tribune