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The Great Eclipse

New "punish the parent" law finds perspective in the shadows of the sun.

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Solar Eclipse / 8 August 2024 / San Antonio Texas
Sunday Morning / April 14, 2024

When Texas judge Jean Boyd sentenced 16-year-old Ethan Couch to probation for DUI murder in 2013, she went easy on sentencing guidelines that encourage prison time for vehicular homicide. Instead, she ordered Couch to undergo therapy, a decision that led to a national backlash. The price tag on the upscale residential treatment center in Newport Beach, California was north of half a million dollars.

Cut to Ethan Crumbley, age 15, who in 2021 entered the Oxford High School near Detroit with a 9mm semi-automatic handgun and killed four, injured seven. Crumbley was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, but his parent’s in an unprecedented legal twist were summarily charged with involuntary manslaughter for failing to secure the handgun used in the shooting. After failing to appear for their arraignment, James and Jennifer Crumbley were the subjects of a manhunt and ultimately convicted separately of four counts of involuntary manslaughter. On April 9, 2024, they were given the maximum sentence of 10-15 years in prison.

A psychologist hired as an expert witness for the defense in the Couch case explained the teen was suffering from “Affluenza," a pseudoscientific psychological malaise alleged to affect the wealthy. It is a portmanteau of affluence + influenza, most commonly by critics of consumerism. Unrecognized by the medical community, expert witness G. Dick Miller testified in court that Couch was “unable to link his actions with consequences because of his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege.” In her statement, Jennifer Crumbley this week said that she, her husband and her son were an “average American family.”

"We weren't perfect, but we loved our son and each other tremendously," Crumbley said. "This could be any parent up here in my shoes. Ethan could be your child, could be your grandchild, your niece, your nephew, your brother, your sister. Your child could make the fatal decision not just with a gun but a knife, a vehicle, intentionally or unintentionally."

Nearly 10 years earlier, the Couch scenario had presaged the Crumbleys. Teen murder leads to a family on the run and to criminal charges, apprehension, and conviction. But a plethora of civil lawsuits filed against Couch’s parents, plaintiffs seeking millions in reparations from the youth’s parents, highlights a murky problem with a specific relief. Children learn what they live.

"These convictions are not about poor parenting,” Judge Cheryl Matthews said, when sentencing the Crumbleys to the stiffest penalty possible. “These convictions confirm repeated acts, or lack of acts, that could and should have halted an oncoming runaway train. These convictions are about accountability.” Moments after sentencing, the Crumbleys began filling out paperwork in the courtroom for the appeal.

Parent Responsibility Law

The word is believed to have been first used in 1954, and popularized in a PBS documentary of the same name in 1997. Unrecognized by the medical community, much if all we know about this “disease” can be sourced to the title “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic.”

A 2001 look at anti-consumerism, John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas Naylor postulate that consumerism is an economic and environmental issue. Its overreaching arc in three parts defines Affluenza as "a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” Specifically, its a “quasi-illness caused by guilt for one's own socio-economic superiority,” and examines the inability to understand the consequences of one's actions due to financial privilege.

Should parents be held criminally responsible for indulging their children when laws are violated, particularly when their actions result in the loss of life or livelihood? What responsibility do parents bear for raising children as law abiding, moral contributors to society?

In Canada and the United States, the term parental responsibility refers to the potential or actual liability that may be incurred by parents for the behavior of their children.

There is a political movement for greater parental accountability, following of a number of highly publicized violent crimes committed by children. While all U.S. states allow parents to be sued for the various actions of their children, criminal prosecution of adults for “neglectful” parenting is relatively new.

While Couch determined that victim’s families can pursue civil damages against the parents of a perpetrator, Crumbley went further. Parents of minor perpetrators are now criminally responsible for their children’s behavior, regardless of whether they were direct or indirect participants in the criminal act.

Though Couch’s parents were able to settle 6 civil actions brought against them for their son’s crime, holding parents accountable for their children’s behaviors isn’t new. They’re rooted in the nation’s juvenile justice system from the early 1900s, but there is little data indicating how frequently those laws are invoked.

Thats because parental involvement laws are vague, and a consensus of prosecuting attorneys and police chiefs across the nation view them as ineffective, according to “The Handbook of Community Sentiment.” Which brings us full circle to the Solar Eclipse of 2024, and a lawsuit by six inmates at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility against the State of New York for violating their religious beliefs.

Hindu, Jewish and Islamic legends incorporates the eclipse into an omen, prayer and meditation are recommended to ward off evil. The Bible attests a darkened sun will presage a second coming, and Buddhists believe that the energy of positive and negative actions is multiplied during major astronomical events.

For long before scientific understanding, the eclipse seemed to elicit primal fear, followed by relief, awe and euphoria when the sun returned. People seem to gather and cooperate during an eclipse, producing for a moment a collective sense of wonder, reconciliation, inspiration, collaboration.

A study following the 2017’s Great American Eclipse found that individuals became orientated to the collective across the nation. Not since 1918 has a solar eclipse been visible across the contiguous United States until now. Sociologists call the world coming together a “collective effervescence,” and next up for the solar eclipse is Europe come 2026. Where, rightly or wrongly, “punish the parent” laws have been on the books for more than a century.

Be it known there isn't a single scintilla of proof the EU's parental responsibility laws ever prevented a crime. While popular and politically convenient, blaming parents for children’s crimes belies the “collective effervescence” of the republic.

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