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DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services

Citation. 489 U.S. 189 (1989)
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Brief Fact Summary.

DeShaney was a four year old child abused so badly by his father that he needed to be institutionalized for the rest of his life. He and his mother sued Winnebago County for not removing DeShaney from his abusive father’s custody.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Due Process clause only applies to state actors, not private actors.


DeShaney was born in 1979, and his parents were divorced in 1980. His father was awarded custody and remarried. DeShaney’s step mother reported abuse in 1982 during his father’s second divorce. In 1983, DeShaney was admitted to the hospital with bruises and abrasions. He was placed in temporary custody of the hospital, but the “child protection team” decided there was insufficient evidence for child abuse. Instead, they placed DeShaney in a preschool program and recommended counseling for his father.

One month later, DeShaney was again treated at the hospital for suspicious injuries. The caseworker again decided there was insufficient evidence of abuse, and instead, made monthly home visits. In November 1983, DeShaney was admitted again.

In March 1984, when he was four, DeShaney’s father beat him so badly that he was in a coma. Emergency brain surgery revealed a history of traumatic brain injuries. His brain damage left him severely retarded, and he was expected to spend then rest of his life in an institution.

His father was then tried and convicted of child abuse. DeShaney’s mother sued on his behalf under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They argued that the State deprived DeShaney of his liberty interest in freedom from unjustified intrusions on personal security by failing to protect him from his father.


Did Winnebago County violate DeShaney’s due process rights by not removing DeShaney from his abusive father’s care?


No, it did not.


Justice Brennan (with Marshall and Blackmun)

The State in this case did intervene at moments and that created more of a duty. The state’s actions at moments created a reliance on the state to continue to intervene, and failure to do so was a breach of DeShaney’s due process rights. By creating a regime where reports go to DSS, if DSS does nothing, there is no point. The reporting process means that there is reliance on the state to fulfill the duty they created.

Justice Blackmun

This is opinion is overly formalistic. Intervention triggered a fundamental duty to help once the State learned of the danger. This is a fundamental issue of justice.


Nothing in the Due Process Clause requires the State to protect the life, liberty, and property against the actions of private actors. The Clause is a limitation on the State’s actions.

Furthermore, there is no affirmative right to governmental aid, even where aid is necessary to secure life, liberty, or property interests.

There is no “special relationship” assumed by the State in circumstances like this one (social services monitoring an abusive situation). In situations where the state is not completely responsible for a person’s wellbeing, like a prison or other state institution, there is no special duty.

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