Separating Trauma from Childhood

Ethan Couch, 16, avoided prison time after his lawyers offered t

Last year, a 16-year old boy from a rich family got drunk (while also having Valium and marijuana in his system), drove a pickup truck (owned by his father’s company), and killed four people. He got absolutely no jail time as a result.

The defense team successfully argued that “because of his family’s wealth and child-rearing style, [the teenager] never learned that his actions had consequences.” In other words, because his parents didn’t do their job, he didn’t deserve to go to prison.

Upon learning that story, my first thought (and Tweet) was,

A quick look at the make-up of our prison system would say that poor kids do not get such a pass. Children growing up in single-parent families, for instance, are significantly more like to commit crimes and be incarcerated. Do any of their legal defense teams try a “it’s not his fault, it’s his parents’ fault” tactic?

But poverty and parenting does affect children. In Schools that Separate the Child from the Trauma, David Bornstein describes how schools can and should use recent brain research to reach our most disadvantaged students.

Top-notch school administrators are learning to look beyond the behavior, and to account for what is going on in that child’s family, to understand what is going on in that child’s mind and heart. The child who “acts out” may be tired or hungry. Or she may have witnessed a traumatic experience, like seeing her mother arrested the night before (I’ve seen that happen at least once).

I’m not being soft-hearted or trying to overlook offenses. But we can all stand to do better understanding who is truly at a disadvantage, and we can all work to level the playing field. (On a related note, privatized probation companies are also skewed against those with the fewest resources.)

Related Links:

**image courtesy of WFAA via Slate

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