Ethan Couch and “Affluenza”
Why is it that everyone seems to be struggling so with the Ethan Couch story? Sadly, there are alcohol fatalities on the roadway far too often, but what is it about this one that is even more inflaming to our senses? There is something about it that just seems to go far beyond the boundaries of reason. Of course, there is the fact that this “child” used a defense called “affluenza,” claiming that he was so spoiled that he didn’t know right from wrong. But if we look closer, there is just something more about this story that makes our collective skin crawl. As a family lawyer with over thirty years experience, I know there are always layers to a story, particularly in a story that just doesn’t seem to make sense, and if you dig down deep enough, what you discover in those layers will begin to give you some clues as to what was really going on and why.
Today, the Denton Record Chronicle ran a story by Associated Press reporter, Emily Schmall, entitled “Teen’s home was wealthy, unstable.” I handle family law matters every day, some with very wealthy clients, middle-class and not so wealthy clients, and their children grow up to be well-adjusted adults who have very successful lives, careers and relationships. What was so skewed in the Ethan Couch story that made his life go so wrong?
There are two quotes from the story that I think are very telling:
1.Ethan had apparently reported that “his parents had always ‘yelled at each other a lot,’ and he wished they they ‘wouldn’t put him in the middle,’” and,
2. Ethan’s father had also reported that his wife “was addicted to Vicodin, had given the painkiller to Ethan about five times, and had kept Ethan ‘s bed in her room and considered him to be her ‘protector.’”
The social worker in Ethan Couch’s parents’ divorce concluded that at 9 years old Ethan had been “adultified.”
What is adultifying or parentifying a child? And how and why can it destroy children?
I am not a psychologist, so my opinion is limited to my experience as a family lawyer and what I have seen in cases that I have handled or seen in which children are “adultified or parentified.”
Children are supposed to be cared for and nurtured by their parents. When a parent is either needing emotional support that is not provided by their relationship with their partner or other adults, some parents turn their children into their confidante and share their worries and responsibilities with them, which confuses the development of the child, sometimes irreparably. Most parents would never intend to hurt the child that they believe they adore, but by neglecting the child’s needs in favor of their own needs, the child is abused. Just like physical abuse, this is also a dangerous type of abuse, but, unlike physical abuse, the scars are not obvious to the outside world. Years later, mental health professionals say, these emotionally confused children marry dependent partners and have anger and depression because all they ever learned was how to care for others’ needs; they have never learned how to take care of their own needs. I have seen some of those previously parentified children after they reach adulthood. They matured early, married, were great parents and successful in their careers, then suddenly they have mid-life crises, abandon their families and other responsibilities and begin behaving like the children and adolescents they were never able to be when they were young. Spouses and children of those previously parentified children are confused and devastated, unable to understand what has happened to their ultra responsible spouse and parent.
This phenomenon is not limited to separated and divorcing families. This can also occur in what appear to outsiders to be a happily married family when parents are in an unhappy or unfulfilled romantic relationship or when one of the parents has issues with boundaries between themselves and their children. But when there is serious conflict, a separation or divorce, there is an even greater risk that a parent will parentify their children. And if the children are bright and intuitive, they may ask questions that really present a dilemma for the parents. As parents, we are taught to be honest with our children, but how much honesty is too much honesty? If the parents are in conflict, and the children are aware of it, to deny it would be damaging to the children because that would cause the children not to trust their own senses. But sharing too much with the children will either bring them into a confidante relationship with one or both parents and/or give the children great anxiety and worry. My recommendation is for parents, whether married, separated or divorced, to become educated on this potential danger into which they, unintentionally, may be placing their children. Then, if the parent has a question (and most do because they are not experts on this issue) about how to tell the children about a situation or what to share with them, contact a mental health professional who can assess the situation and offer suggestions on how to be truthful with but appropriate and protective of the children. Often, a child therapist is helpful for the children to have a third party who will not be hurt by or defensive about by what they say or ask.
There are numerous articles on this subject. I have found the blog “Harming Your Child by Making Him Your Parent” succinctly and clearly explains this topic.
The Collaborative Law Institute of Texas also has resources available on its website about this subject, including Information Regarding Divorce and Children. If you are considering divorce or separation, before the conflict causes irreparable damage to your children, please consider contacting a Collaborative Divorce Attorney and learn how the Collaborative Divorce Process can protect your children from the conflict.
One other example of the effect conflict may have on children is shown in the movie, “Mrs. Doubtfire.” With a comedic touch to lighten the sadness of the subject, Robin Williams and Sally Field paint an honest picture of how hurting parents can unintentionally bring their children into the conflict and pain of a separation and divorce. I suggest every parent watch this movie; it is a powerful reminder of how everything parents say and do models and teaches their children, and that power should be used carefully.
Finally, Ethan Couch. From a divorce lawyer’s perspective, it is highly likely that the damage done to that child by a mother that was so emotionally damaged herself could not have been prevented without professional intervention years ago. What his parents (and particularly his mother) did to him probably sealed his future fate, and those of his victims, years ago. Now the families of his victims will continue to suffer. But maybe what the rest of us can do is learn from this and help prevent other tragedies like this one.
Camille Milner is a divorce lawyer, who practices in Denton, Sanger, Highland Village, Flower Mound, Argyle, Frisco, Lewisville, and Carrollton and the surrounding areas. To schedule an appointment, call 940-383-2674.
Marty Leewright says
Camille, as usual you are spot on. The issues of Ethan Couch are much more complex than is portrayed by the media-created catchy sound-byte “Affluenza”. This characterization, was based on a few lines of testimony from one witness a psychologist in this widely controversial case. There was much more evidence which the Judge heard in this case and which you so insightfully refer to in your Blog comments above.
I am a former Texas Juvenile Prosecutor and I teach Juvenile Justice at Texas Christian University. First, I want to say that the Juvenile Judge in the Ethan Couch case, the Honorable Jean Boyd, who has been so widely criticized and second-guessed, made a prudent and experienced decision in placing young Couch on “10 years Probation” instead of sentencing him to time in a Texas juvenile facility. Had Judge Jean Boyd two years ago sent Couch to a youth facility for “Hard Time” as many have retroactively demanded, he would very likely have been released by now, he would have been considered to have “done his time” and would not have even been on probation. He also would not have gotten (at taxpayers expense) the expensive help he desperately needs. By ordering Couch on probation for 10 years, Judge Boyd wisely insured that the Texas Court System would maintain close supervision of Couch for a decade and could monitor his progress if his parents, as promised, got him the private and expensive counseling and treatment that they promised to provide.
Part of the frustration and confusion on the part of a retribution-seeking public (and countless media commentator “experts” and TV pundits) is a basic misunderstanding of Juvenile Law versus Criminal Law. The entire Juvenile Law in Texas is contained in Title 3 of the Family Code, this is a CIVIL code. Criminal law (applicable to adults) is contained in the separate and distinct Texas Penal Code, this is a CRIMINAL Code. They contain entirely different concepts and goals. The first, “what is in the best interest of the child” and “rehabilitation. The second, “accountability for criminal conduct ” “against the peace and dignity of the State” and “punishment”.
The distinction between youthful and adult offenders coincides with the beginning of recorded history. For example, 4,000 years ago (2270 B.C.) the Code of Hammurabi addressed runaway children, sons who cursed their fathers and children who disowned their parents, etc. Roman Civil law 2,000 years ago also made distinctions between juveniles and adults. Early juvenile “facilities” in our own country (about 1825) were called “Houses of Refuge” and were for the “protection” of children (like many vulnerable children roaming the streets of New York City), later thanks to women leaders (1855 in Illinois) to the re-form of children. The “law” has long wrestled with how to handle bad acts by children, this is certainly not a recent phenomenon.
Camille, here you insightfully discuss the much deeper issues of a dysfunctional co-dependency developed between a mother and a child. You admit that you are not a Psychologist and indeed, it would take an experienced Psychologist to untangle the confused web of an “adultified” or “parentified” child, as you say. Judge Jean Boyd, an experience jurist of over twenty years on the juvenile bench, certainly heard more evidence than has ever been reported by the media. Undoubtedly, Judge Boyd observed and perceived issues revealed by your insightful comments in your Blog. The bottom line is: Do you blame and punish a child, for malfeasance and omissions of the mother (and father)? If so, please God, save all of our children. Or, do you correct, rehabilitate and reform the bad behavior of the child poorly taught, raised and supervised? There is no felony, to my knowledge, for being “a bad parent”.
The “Prefrontal Cortex” of the human brain, often referred to as the “Presidential Control Center”, controlling judgment, common sense, appreciating consequences, risk taking, etc., is not fully developed until about age 25. So precisely when do you punish for behavior that the child~adult actor does or should know is wrong and be held fully accountable for? These are tough questions which have been asked countless times. It is when a case like Ethan Couch’s occurs, a collision at the intersection of juvenile law and adult penal law, that judgment and accountability becomes a wreck. It is a hard case. Often it is said that, “Hard cases make bad law”. It remains to be seen, whether we will see a sustained public reaction to this highly unusual case and a subsequent legislative response in the form of an “Ethan Couch Act or Law”…
Thank you Camille for shedding much need light on a very complex case.