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DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Services

Citation. 489 U.S. 189, 109 S. Ct. 998, 103 L. Ed. 2d 249, 1989 U.S.
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Brief Fact Summary.

The Petitioner, DeShaney (Petitioner), was beaten into a coma by his father. He later recovered, but was confined to an institution for the severally mentally retarded as a result of his injures. During the entire time he was being beaten, the Respondent, Winnebago County Dept. of Social Services (Respondent), was monitoring his home and paying regular visits.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Due Process Clause provides no affirmative right to governmental aide. It is meant to protect individuals from state actors not other individuals.


The Petitioner was born in 1979. His parents divorced in 1980 and his father was given custody of him. His father moved to Wisconsin where he remarried and later divorced. His second wife informed authorities of child abuse against the Petitioner and the Respondent interviewed the father. He denied the accusations. Then in 1982 a local hospital reported the Petitioner’s suspicious injuries to the Respondent. The Respondent began monitoring the situation and visiting the child’s home. The social worker noted on at least several occasions that the Petitioner appeared to be suffering from child abuse, yet the Respondent left the Petitioner in the custody of his father. Finally, in 1983 the Petitioner was admitted to the hospital and fell into a coma due to a series of hemorrhages caused by traumatic injuries to the head inflicted over a long period of time. The father was eventually convicted of child abuse.


By failing to intervene to protect the Petitioner from the abuse of his father did the Respondent deny the Petitioner his liberty without due process?


No. A state’s failure to protect someone from violence by another individual is not a violation of the Due Process Clause. Although the state may be aware of a person’s situation, it is only required to protect the person when it has deprived the individual the freedom to act on his own behalf.


Justice William Brennan (J. Brennan): The state developed the social service program specifically to help children like the Petitioner. Because of this intervention and greater awareness of the situation, the state had an affirmative duty to act.
Justice Harry Blackmun (J. Blackmun): The majority fails to see the duty of the state because its focuses on a rigid classification of action and inaction.


When a person is reliant upon the state as a caretaker, then the state has a greater responsibility to protect the person. In this case, had the Petitioner been a ward of the state or in foster care, the state would have had an affirmative duty to remove him from the abusive home.

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